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Can I Fool You? 10 Business Writing Rules

For April Fools' Day, here is a list of 10 rules for effective business writing. Two of them are phony rules. Can I fool you? 

Rule 1. Always think of your reader while planning your message or document.

Rule 2. Limit your sentences to an average length of 20 words or less–less is better. 

Rule 3. Avoid writing paragraphs of just one sentence. Use a minimum of 2-3 sentences for good flow. 

Rule 4. In group emails, reply to all when you briefly thank an individual. 

Rule 5. When you write a bulleted list, structure your bullet points the same way (for example, all sentences or all clauses). 

Rule 6. Never use a comma before the word and. 

Rule 7. In thank-yous, be specific about what you are grateful for.  

Rule 8. Spell out acronyms and other abbreviations before you use the abbreviated form. 

Rule 9. Use all capital letters (CAPS LOCK) for messages when you need to grab your readers' attention. 

Rule 10. In email, always insert a subject on the subject line. 


Which two are not rules of business writing? Did I fool you? I will share my answer in the comments later. 

Syntax Training 

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
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. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

11 comments on “Can I Fool You? 10 Business Writing Rules”

  • I’d have to say rule 4 (Reply-all) and rule 9 are never appropriate. Too many people think rule 4 is a real rule!

  • I’m with Frank on this one — 4 and 9 are the April Fools’ joke. I think many people need to pay more attention to when they should and should not use “reply all.”

  • Yep 4 and 9 work for me. I could see reply all if you were emphasizing to a group the work one person has done but for a quick thanks I got your email, not so much.

  • I’d say 6 and 9. I like number 4: If I were to be thanked, I’d want everyone else to know I had been thanked! Number 6, I can think of a few exceptions to this rule, i.e. When a coordinating conjunction is used to connect two independent clauses, a comma is always used.

  • I go with 9 for sure and 4 in most cases. If the work completed was exceptional for any number of reasons a group response with a Thank You is warranted. I do that but often people have completed a small task or just doing their daily job sent a heads-ups . For those I do a personal thank you to the individual. Rule 6 just seems insignificant in the scheme of writing issues.

  • Thanks, everyone, for commenting.

    April Fool (though a day late)! There were four phony rules:

    Rule 3: One-sentence paragraphs are often fine.

    Rule 4: Brief thanks such as “Thank you” flood people’s inboxes needlessly.

    Rule 6: There are many places where a comma belongs before “and.” See this blog post:

    Rule 9: Do not use ALL CAPS to get your readers’ attention, except for brief headings or phrases.

    Was I too sneaky? Sorry!


  • Hi Lynn,

    I picked 4 and 6. I didn’t like 9, though. But I didn’t see any serious problem with 3. But I agree that one-sentence paragraphs are great, especially on the screen.

    Thanks for the challenge.


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