I love writing, and I love all the “rules” that come with it. And though I get that copyediting my tweets and Facebook posts before I share them with the world is a bit much for most people, I think there are a few writing rules we should all follow—especially at work.
Many of us break them daily, often without realizing it. Though perfect prose may not be of utmost importance in every office or industry, there’s probably someone—a colleague, a client, or your boss—who is noticing your writing and, even worse, judging your professionalism by it.
So before you draft another email, take note of the most common workplace writing mistakes, and follow this guide to avoid them.
1. Writing too casually
Example: Thx for ur feedback, Joe! Will f/u tomorrow.
I’m lucky enough to work in a pretty casual environment—one where we wear flip-flops and mass-email ridiculously Photoshopped snapshots of one another’s faces.
That casualness isn’t the norm for every office, so it’s better to be formal than frivolous in your professional writing. Though that obviously means bypassing abbreviations and slang, it also means writing in complete sentences, using correct spelling, and avoiding nicknames. There may come a time when you’re comfortable enough to speak more casually with the recipient of your message, but in business it’s always better to play it safe (and professional) than sorry.
2. Using passive voice
Example: The attached document was received by the team.
Let’s get this out of the way: Passive voice—that is, when the receiver of an action is the subject of the sentence (in this case, the document)—is not grammatically incorrect, but passive sentences often seem awkward or unnecessarily vague. Active voice—when the one taking action is the subject of the sentence—is more direct and clear. It also sounds more authoritative and shows ownership or responsibility for what you’ve done . (“I saved the client $5,000” shows off your accomplishment much better than “$5,000 was saved.”)
3. Over-using exclamation points
Example: Hi Bob! Hope you had a great weekend! I want to follow up on the Q1 report, and was hoping you might be able to send me the latest draft—no rush though!
I understand why people get exclamation-happy in professional writing. It can be easy to misconstrue the tone or emotion behind an email if not for very obvious displays of temperament, and people often pepper their writing with exclamation points to show they’re being friendly. The truth is, it’s simply not professional—and worse, it can come across as juvenile. (Same goes for emoticons—a smiley face will never get your point across intelligently.)
Remember that exclamation points are meant to show emphasis, and they lose their meaning when overused. Use them sparingly and, when in doubt, not at all.
4. Writing vague subject lines
Example: Subject: Tuesday; Body: I need the Q1 report delivered by next Tuesday.
The subject of your email should summarize what’s in the body. This is a simple concept that, surprisingly, most of the working world still hasn’t grasped. When most of us receive upward of 200 emails a day and often need to scan a jam-packed inbox for specific topics, it’s infuriating when senders leave their subject lines vague.
With all professional communication, your goal is to provide clarity as quickly as possible —and in email, that starts with your subject line. In the example above, “Q1 Report: Due Next Tuesday” would be much clearer than simply, “Tuesday.”
5. Getting jargon-happy
Example: Can you pull the FS numbers and check that they parallel our STH count?
Though you might think industry or company buzzwords make you sound professional and in-the-know, it defeats your purpose if no one can understand what you’re saying. Remember, even if you think your direct recipient will know what you’re talking about, your message could be passed along to others, both within and outside your organization.
The best email or notice is one that makes your point (or your request or your reply) readily apparent, and jargon defeats that purpose.
Yes, we all break these rules from time to time. (Hey, I’ve sent many a smiley face via interoffice email in my day.) In a quick email in a casual office to a close co-worker, every now and then—fine. In general, though, your best bet is to play it safe, stay professional, and review your work to keep these common blunders out of your written communications.
This article was originally published on The Daily Muse.
Jenna Britton is a public relations professional at Sparkpr in Los Angeles. She is also an avid reader and writer, particularly of personal essays. Most recently, her work was published on Salon.com. She is a proud graduate of UC Berkeley and just received her Masters in Education from Loyola Marymount University. She teaches classes on blogging, social media, and building your brand through both at Writing Pad LA. You can follow Britton on Twitter at @jennanicole or find her occasionally musing at SplendidReally.com.