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Summary:

As I sit down each day to do my work, the vast majority of which involves writing (articles, web site content, tweets and blog posts), I can’t help but think about the writing rules drilled into me by past English teachers. In most cases, their advice […]

typewriter.jpgAs I sit down each day to do my work, the vast majority of which involves writing (articles, web site content, tweets and blog posts), I can’t help but think about the writing rules drilled into me by past English teachers. In most cases, their advice is still very pertinent, and I write better by adhering to it. But there are a few rules that would prove detrimental to my online work if I continued to follow them.

I was taught how to write in a world in which print media still dominated the written word. Much has changed since those pre-Internet days, the practice of writing not least of all. As a result, some things that were once considered big no-nos are now standard practice. Here’s a few old chestnuts you should think about tossing out as you transition to online writing. You may even take joy in doing so, if you’re the rebellious sort.

1. Write What You Know

Even when I was a much younger writer, and a big fan of science fiction writing, I found this rule to be rather limiting. The fact is, now that I’m doing various kinds of online writing that differ greatly depending on the contract, it’s become downright anti-productive.

A much better and more applicable rule for today’s provider of online content is know what you write, as quickly and efficiently as you can. That means doing research to gain a sense of familiarity with your topic, and to quickly find out what kind of tone and tenor is acceptable for the genre. Honestly, your goal as a writer is to be able to fool an expert into thinking the content was created by someone with at least a comfortable grasp and lengthy history with the subject at hand.

2. Don’t Use Contractions

Contractions like “I’ll” and “They’re” may have been completely against all good sense back when you were writing essays for school, but they’re completely acceptable in almost all online writing (see what I just did there?). In fact, when I work as an editor for blog content, I often insert contractions where they belong.

What many people don’t realize when they make the jump from print to online writing is that web content has as much do with spoken English as it does written English, in terms of what’s considered acceptable (see, I did it again!). Contractions more accurately emulate a conversational tone, which is something many blogs, marketing departments and community builders are aiming for with their online publications. If you do not use contractions in your writing, it is liable to sound awkward and stilted to a seasoned Internet media consumer.

3. Revise, Revise, Revise

Revision is terrific, don’t get me wrong (I can see editors all over the world glaring at me menacingly). It’s terrific and necessary, when you have the luxury of time. The fact is, with a lot of Internet writing, you just don’t have that luxury. Taking time to meticulously revise a piece could result in something that was current becoming old news, especially now that Twitter delivers news in real time.

Read over what you’ve written, always, but try to practice producing publication-quality prose on a first draft basis. Part of that means editing as you go, but part of it is just writing with a high degree of frequency. It helps if you can identify your common errors in advance, because that way you’ll be attuned to those areas as you write them, which should make you more likely to catch a mistake as it happens.

Those are the three big rules I break every day. And every time I do, I can still hear my tenth grade English teacher uncapping his red Sharpie. Do what you will, Mr. Marchand, but the Internet demands an entirely new set of rules, and she’s the only English teacher I have to please now.

What writing “rules” do you break regularly?

  1. I’ll certainly go along with #2 on your list (see what I just did there? ;-), as it really does contribute to a conversational style that can be quicker and easier for the reader to digest. And since we’re all deluged with too much stuff to read as it is, anything that can contribute to a quicker read is probably a good thing. And I would probably throw out a few of the grammatical rules, also; such as not starting sentences with conjunctions or prepositions. But as for the other two…

    “Revise, revise, revise” – I would perhaps change this to just “revise”. Excessive revision, as you point out, can certainly detract from the immediacy of the information and lead to ‘analysis paralysis’. But a good one-time-over proofreading can certainly help in catching glaring deficiencies. And I certainly wouldn’t hold the drivel that passes for Twitter up as a reason to pass up a good single-pass revision.

    As for “write what you know”, I would have to disagree. Trying to pass for being knowledgeable in an area where you are not is only self-serving, providing the writer a means of sharing their ignorance with others. The real danger here is that you are often doing a disservice to your readers by providing them with bad information. I think this especially holds true in the arena of so-called “consumer advice”. In particular, having been involved in a wide variety of real estate practice for 30 years, it has been appalling to me to see some of the ill considered and downright wrong articles written by “journalists” about this subject. And someone who truly is knowledgeable in the field that you are writing about will see right through you. If you’re not knowledgeable about a certain subject, and still choose to write about it, then at least admit that fact to your audience. Any other approach is just downright deceptive and constitutes outright lying and cheating.

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    1. Like Dennis, I disagree with where you went on point 1. But it does seem to describe journalism. Great stories here. Facts and understanding? Not so much.

      Speaking of journalism… You wrote a good op-ed zinger to create controversy and feedback! (You win! Here are the replies!) You advertised it nicely by juxtaposing “Honestly” and “to fool” in the same sentence.

      You don’t have to be an expert to write about a subject; you have to be a writer. You can research quickly and efficiently to gain a comfortable grasp of your subject. Then write about it. If you are not sure of your facts and assertions, get your piece checked by an expert before publishing.

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  2. I believe both Dennis and Darrell are right, hence both are wrong – that is, the truth lies somewhere between the two approaches of ‘knowing what your write’ and ‘learning as you go on writing’. I’m talking from my experience alone, of course.
    When I wrote the business dictionary Infotool (the largest lexicon of its kind in English with over 20,000 definitions) I tried to be as comprehensive as possible while being as concise and clear as possible. That meant learning at least the basics of some 100 subjects associated with the world of business in one way or the other. These subjects range from Accounting to Workplace Safety and practically everything in between including Economics, Law, IT, Psychology, Sociology … you name it. In the beginning I knew only a few of them but immersed myself in every topic to learn it so well that I could explain it in everyday language. Thus the endeavor was a combination of both approaches, as the situation required. Did I succeed in achieving my objectives? Well, judge it for yourself by checking the terms at http://www.businessdictionary.com!

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  3. “if if” and “with with”. Your own writing disproved #3.

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    1. As the editor, that’s my fault, not Darrell’s — I should have spotted those. Now fixed, thanks, Alan.

      However, I don’t think a couple of minor typos invalidate Darrell’s point, which is that getting your material out there is often better than sitting on it, endlessly revising.

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  4. As someone who writes several articles a day online the main rule I break is spelling as I live in the UK but write for a U.S. audience. Organize not organise, color not colour, and a few quirky ones such as not using “straight away” in a sentence.

    I agree that writing regularly does help a lot and you get to a point where you can switch your style/s on and off depending on the subject matter.

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    1. Oh please, please, please, write with a Brit accent! I’ve craved those expressions for decades…one’s such as “on your bike”, “put a sock in it”, “how about a leg over, luv?”. They bring back memories from the ’70s when I worked as an entertainer on a British cruise ship (the Spirit of London, later to become TV’s Love Boat – for the full story of this particular train wreck (ship wreck?) see http://pimpmycruise.com/mod/customindex/ourstory.php). – LC

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  5. [...] more here:  The New Writer: Writing Advice from Your Past You Should Ignore This entry was posted on Saturday, November 14th, 2009 at 8:00 am and is filed under Writing. You [...]

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  6. I read a post the other day about over usage of the word “that”. Perhaps it’s true that I use it too much, but there are so many instances that I can’t do without it. lol

    Love, love, love, using contractions. Mostly because of the 140 character thingy that I resort to several times a day (better known as Twitter).

    Thanks for the post!
    @Ileane

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    1. Oops, forgot one other thing:

      When I was more active on Twitter, I sure learned how to speak as efficiently as possible. Abbreviating words for that is one thing, but writing a succint and direct sentence that grabs attention is another. Try to spend a day replying to any work emails like it’s a twitter feed, and you’ll get a lot of action items done!!!

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  7. I am very much against the current downward spiral in online writing skills. I’m (see what I did there?) by no means an English major, but there are some very simple and terrible mistakes I see over and over in online writing, and sometimes the conversational tone can be so casual that it makes for an overly wordy and confusing article. In some cases, a story is casual to the point that I can’t take the validity of the argument seriously.

    As the world gets “closer” because of the internet, we also have an olbigation to make things easier to digest if we are trying to do international business or working with people who do not have strong English or technical language skills.

    Rule of thumb: I always write tech like I’m writing to explain it to my grandmother. Conversation, but to the point, and avoiding too many inside references/slang.

    Nice article, though. I enjoy Webworkerdaily.

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  8. Hi

    I’m very loose when it comes to following grammar rules. Sometimes doing it the “proper” way simply doesn’t seem to give the correct feeling to a sentence.

    Juliet

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  9. Just this weekend I gave a talk about communicating effectively online. One of my main points was “Don’t let perfect grammar get in the way of an effective message and a consistent voice.” Nobody adheres to strict rules of grammar when they speak, and the web is (usually) an informal and conversational medium for communications.

    And I also agree with the spirit behind point #1. I write for a large variety of different clients, and there is often a huge learning curve when it comes to writing content in a new subject area. As a professional, it’s my job to do the work of learning what I need to know. So I agree–Know what you write!

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