I love writing, and I love all of the “rules” that come along with it. And while I get that copyediting my tweets and Facebook posts before I share them with the world is a bit much for most people, I do think there are a few writing rules we should all follow—especially at work.
But many of us (myself included) break them daily, often without even realizing it. And while perfect prose may not be of the utmost importance in every office or industry, there’s likely someone—a colleague, a client, or your boss—who is noticing your writing and, even worse, making a judgment of your professionalism based on 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 can (and do) wear flip-flops to work and mass-email ridiculously Photoshopped snapshots of one another’s faces.
But that casualness isn’t the norm for every office, which means that it’s best to be more formal than frivolous in your professional writing. While 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 Instead of Active
Example: The attached document was received by the team.
Let’s get this out of the way first: 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 sentences that are phrased passively often seem awkward or unnecessarily vague. Active voice—when the one taking action is the subject of the sentence—is typically more direct and clear. It also sounds more authoritative, and can be a better way to show 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 definitely get the reasons 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 in an effort to show that they’re being friendly. But 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 in an intelligent-sounding way.)
Remember that exclamation points are meant to show emphasis, and they tend to 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 be a quick summary of what’s in the body. This is a very simple concept that, surprisingly, has still not been grasped by a large majority of the working world. But, when most of us receive upwards of 200 emails a day and often need to scan through a jam-packed inbox for the topics we’re looking for, it can be an especially infuriating business writing mistake to leave your 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?
While you might think that using industry or company buzzwords makes 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 of your organization.
The best email or notice is one that makes your point (or your request or your reply) readily apparent, and jargon unnecessarily obscures 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). And in a quick email in a casual office to a close co-worker, every now and then? Fine. But, in general, your best bet is to play it safe, stay professional, and review your work to keep these common blunders out of your written communications.