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Tips \ Mar 11th 2018

Writing Rules We Love to Break

Writers spend lots of time crafting the perfect text. We stick to guidelines, necessary tone and, generally speaking, we abide by writing rules. But even writing rules are made to be broken.

Sometimes you write a sentence that might make your English teacher beam with pride, but you feel like your message isn’t coming out right. Next time you feel stuck, have a little fun with your sentence – try breaking a few of the rules and see what happens!

Here are some tips on how to break some of the most fundamental rules in writing.

01. Passive voice: crazy or misunderstood?

The #1 writing rule is to use active voice. Active voice makes your writing more lively, clear, easier to read, and (usually) shorter. But sometimes you write a sentence and just know it would work better in passive voice. And then you second-guess yourself. After all, isn’t active voice the gold standard?

Usually, yes. But not always. Consider using passive voice when:

  • The doer is not the main focus of your sentence. Do you want to highlight the person being acted on, or the object? Try passive and see if it sounds better.

    Here’s an example:
    The Wix Writers’ Blog was made with love by the Wix Writers team.
    Our focus here is the blog itself, so passive is the way to go. In active voice, the focus switches to the doer:
    The Wix Writers team wrote the Wix Writers’ Blog.
    (If our focus is on what the team is up to, then active voice is better.)
  • The doer is unknown, obvious, or not important. Passive voice can work if you don’t know who performed an action, if it’s obvious who did it, or if it doesn’t matter.

    Here’s an example:

    My purse was stolen.
    Do you care more about your purse than the person who stole it? Then go with passive voice. However, if you were vacationing in Costa Rica and a monkey stole your purse, then you might want to use active voice to highlight the doer:
    A monkey stole my purse!
    Unless you’re going for a surprise twist at the end:
    My purse was stolen by a thieving orangutan.
  • The sentence doesn’t flow. It’s important to establish a flow so readers understand the connection as they go from one sentence to the next. Active voice sometimes breaks that flow.

    Here’s an example:
    We wanted to use passive voice to establish the right flow: You can easily develop or integrate your app with Wix. Apps are loaded as iframes in our platform, so there’s a seamless experience between third-party apps and Wix.
    Now see how the connection would be broken if you made that second sentence active: You can easily develop or integrate your app with Wix. Our platform loads apps as iframes, so there’s a seamless experience between third-party apps and Wix.

How to apply this to your writing: Before using passive voice, read the sentence out loud. If it sounds off or puts the spotlight on the wrong part of the sentence, try going with passive voice instead.

02. Less is not always more?

Do you write content for the web? Then you’ve probably heard this before:
“People spend an average of 1 millisecond reading your article so don’t waste their time with unnecessary words.”

In writing for the Wix brand, we are encouraged to create a relationship with the readers, have a conversation with users, and be friendly and relatable in our writing. The emphasis isn’t on saving words, but on making your words count.

That sounds nice, but when you write in a friendly, conversational way, you might end up with a higher word count. So how can you strike a balance between keeping your text short but also being friendly?

By making your words count. Having an extra word here or there is fine if it makes your content flow better, gets readers excited to continue reading, and keeps them coming back.

What does this look like in action? In the previous section about passive voice, we didn’t have to add the example about the thieving orangutan. But it made us smile, so we thought it might make you smile, too.

Here’s another example:
When a user adds a button to their website, we ask questions to guide them in setting it up, like, What does this button say? We could make it shorter by writing something like, Button Text – but our goal is to engage the user in conversation, not stick to a minimalist word count.

How to apply this to your writing: Highlight any words that you could cut without taking away from clarity. Do they serve a purpose, or just add fluff? Find and ditch any “fluff” words. (One of our favorite examples of unnecessary words is the phrase “in order to.” You can just say “to.”)

03. To preposition, or not to..?

Ask a writing guru if it’s acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition and they might say that it’s a big no-no. But this is a rule we break all the time here at Wix, especially when we want to write text that flows and is easy to read.

Here’s an example:
A user added Google Maps to their site and they’re setting up the app. The text and tone of the app is easy, friendly, and very conversational. One of the settings asks – What language is the button in? Followed by a drop-down of language options.

If you were talking to a friend, you would naturally ask, What language is this button in? You wouldn’t say, Choose a language for your button.

How to apply this to your writing: If you’re not sure about the preposition at the end of your sentence, read your text aloud and see if it flows. Would you say it like this in a conversation? When the sentence works with the rest of your copy and the tone of what you’re writing, be a rebel and keep the preposition.

04. Can’t, won’t, don’t use contractions?

Are contractions messy and informal? Some writers might say yes, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid them at all costs, particularly when you’re writing in a friendly, informal tone. At Wix, we love to use contractions in our text. Why? Because, at the end of the day, our goal is to give our readers eye-level content so they can immediately understand what we’re trying to tell them.

Here’s an example:
When writing a tooltip for a Wix product, we might say something like: Visitors won’t be able to log into your site when the toggle is off.  If we avoid contractions in this instructional sentence, we’ll have something like this: Visitors will not be able to log into your site when the toggle is off. The first option is easier to read and doesn’t sound as intimidating. Sometimes contractions just sound more natural.

Here’s another example:
Don’t you want to know more? Sounds more natural than, Do you not want to know more? The latter is harder to read and sounds very formal when you say it out loud.

How to apply this to your writing: Try reading your sentence out loud, with and without the contraction. Go with whichever sounds better to you, particularly if your tone is informal.

05. Skip the intro?

When we write anything, from the content on a website to an essay or a novel, we are told to start with an intro, then expand into details, and to finish off with a neat conclusion. But sometimes, there’s no need to warm up the crowd. Your readers might prefer you get straight to the point.

When we created a “What’s New” page to let app developers know about new dev features in Wix, we wanted them to be able to easily identify the features most relevant to their app. To help them skim through, we started each feature explanation with an overview of what kind of apps it applies to and why they might find it useful.

Here’s an example:
We wrote, “Call all social apps! With our new social activity, you can receive and post events related to social actions in the Wix site – for example, when a site visitor comments on the site, likes an Instagram photo, or posts a comment through Facebook.”

But then the strangest thing happened. We reached out to developers for feedback and each one of them told us that they just wanted straightforward details about the feature. They cared less about who it’s relevant for or when to use it.

They were looking for something more like this:
“You can now receive and post events related to social actions in the Wix site – for example, when a site visitor comments on the site or likes an Instagram photo. Use our new social activity.”

We were surprised, because the new text seemed out of context. How would developers know if it’s relevant to them? And that’s when we realized: Don’t assume that what works for you, or even for most readers, will work for your specific audience. Our readers just wanted to know practical details, without any explanations or background information.

Most of the time, you would want to start out by telling readers if the content is relevant for them. But when we tried to do that here, we missed the mark on what our readers actually wanted: to learn the practicalities of our new features and decide on their own if they’re interested in using them.

How to apply this to your writing: Take time to get to know your audience and what they’re looking for. They might want you to get straight to the point, without any fluff or preliminaries. To gauge this, read content that others have written for them. And as much as possible, ask your readers for feedback.

There you have it! These are the writing rules that we have had the pleasure of breaking (over and over again) here at Wix. We hope you’ll find ways to break them (gracefully) in your writing. Just remember to always keep in mind your audience and tone, and to stick to your company’s style guide. After all, the voice and tone we use at Wix might not work for you.

And one more thing: it might help to think of writing “rules” as more like “guidelines.” Use them when they help your writing, and ditch them when they don’t.

Good luck & happy rule-breaking!

Raisa Gershcovich
By Raisa Gershcovich
UX Writer
Lana Raykin
By Lana Raykin
Technical Writer

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