Writing for Today: Or, all the ways Your 7th grade English teacher was wrong

Writing for Today

The field of communications is constantly changing. You can thank digital media for that.

As the field changes, you’ll find that rules related to writing and editing change, too. Some you can only bend, but some you can outright break (much to the horror of your 7th grade English teacher).

Here are some of the outmoded rules I see most often. You are hereby given permission to break them.

Outmoded Rule #1: Double spaces after periods

Still putting two spaces after every period? Stahhhhhhp. Most credible sources don’t use two spaces after a period these days. Why? Using just one space after a period makes text flow better from one sentence to the next. Trust me, there are a lot of people who feel strongly about this.

If you’re not convinced, try this: Open a piece you’ve written with two spaces after every period. Now conduct a “find and replace” search, substituting your double spaces for single spaces after each period. Save the single-spaced piece as a new document. Now open the old version and compare the two side-by-side. Which one looks better?

Outmoded Rule #2: Indents at the beginning of paragraphs

No one does this anymore…or, at least they shouldn’t. Indents at the beginning of paragraphs were necessary back when paragraphs were just a single line-space apart, and people were doing the majority of their reading on paper. But these days, most people read content online — where the norm is to use a double line-space between paragraphs.

Throwing an indent in the mix makes the start of your sentence look like its hanging out in the middle of no man’s land. It’s awkward to the point of distraction, and it uses up a fair amount of valuable real estate on the page. People feel pretty strongly about this, too, but unless you’re preparing a manuscript or a journal article, pitch the indents and adapt to today’s norms.


Outmoded Rule #3: Not ending sentences with prepositions

I know. I know this one doesn’t feel right. I find myself trying to avoid it whenever I can. But after squirming in my chair for a while, I find that my options are usually:

  1. write a succinct, clear sentence that ends with a preposition, or
  2. reconstruct the sentence in a way that’s convoluted/tortured/awkward, but doesn’t end in a preposition.

For the love of all that is holy, please just end the sentence with a preposition. No one will yell at you. Or, at least, no one has yelled at me.

Outmoded Rule #4: Not beginning sentences with conjunctions

For most people, breaking this rule is a little easier than the previous one. But if you still have a hard time starting your sentences with “and,” “but,” “or,” or “so,” try thinking of it this way:

People have a limited amount of time and attention to dedicate to your message. Given these constraints, run-on sentences aren’t optimal.

You’re better off separating that second clause into a stand-alone sentence. If that means starting the sentence with a conjunction, so be it. Even the folks with Oxford Dictionaries would support you on this.


Outmoded Rule #5: Avoiding second person pronouns

Yes, it’s informal. So no, you don’t want to use the second person constantly (or at all, depending on your audience). But it can be very effective, especially in small doses. It makes a message more personal, and the reader is much more ready to identify him or herself with what you’re trying to say.

Which feels more personal to you?: “The time has come.” OR “Your time has come.”

Outmoded Rule #6: Putting 3-5 sentences in a paragraph

If today’s short attention spans mean that sentences should be brief, that goes double for paragraphs. Show readers that you value their time by facilitating a quick read.

When you’re writing for the web, you should shoot for three sentences per paragraph. (Note: You can do 4-5 as long as you’re keeping sentences short and sweet.) If you’ve got a particularly long sentence, and it needs to stay that way, go ahead and make it its own paragraph. Sacrilege, I know. But you can do it.


Finally, I don’t advocate eschewing all grammar or style rules. In fact, I think editorial style is really important. If you’re wondering whether you should break a rule, ask yourself what’s motivating you to do it. If your reasoning comes from wanting to make the reader’s experience easier, or to make your message more impactful, then you’re probably doing it for the right reasons.

What other outmoded grammar or style rules have you seen broken on a regular basis? What rules do you wish you could break?



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