Skip to content

The Only Rule Is What Works for Readers

The other day a client (I’ll call him Joe) was talking with me about his letters to customers. He responds to customers’ compliment and complaint letters about a high-end service Joe’s company sells. Joe was worried because when he responded to customers, he was having a hard time keeping his letters to one page. He asked:

How do I keep my letters to one page and still address all the customers’ concerns?

I asked:

When customers open your letter, are they saying, “Gee, I hope he keeps his response to one page”?

When Joe put himself in his customers’ place, he recognized that the length of his letters is not an issue. If a customer sends Joe a 3-page letter commenting on the strengths and weaknesses of Joe’s company’s service, getting a short response is not the customer’s goal. Instead, the customer wants to be heard, feel valued, and get excellent customer service. If it takes Joe 1.5 or 2 pages to show that his company hears, values, and serves the customer, that’s just fine.

Whenever you face a writing rule that feels like an obstacle, ask yourself whether it applies to your situation and your reader. Examples:

  • The rule of keeping a letter to a page does not meet Joe’s customers’ needs.
  • The rule of avoiding contractions (can’t, didn’t) does not apply if your readers want to hear from a person–not a spokesperson–as in a blog.
  • The rule of one-page resumes does not apply if you have lived a two-page life. Your reader wants all the relevant highlights.
  • The rule of using short chunks of text, like bullet points, may not apply when you are telling a story, even in business writing. Bullet points focus on facts and figures–not on atmosphere, emotion, vision, and story.

The only rule of business writing is what works for readers. The rest is just artificial constraints.



Posted by Avatar photo
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.