Writing Rules Are Made to Be Chosen

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Wanting to know “the rules” is a very natural impulse when it comes to writing. Learning and following the rules – of spelling, of grammar and usage, of how term papers are supposed to be formatted – was part and parcel of how most of us learned to write.

This perspective can be detrimental when it comes to creating digital content, however. Rules don’t always transfer neatly from industry to industry, organization to organization, or even channel to channel. That’s because every writing or grammar “rule” that your writers follow is (or should be) precipitated by a design choice to follow said rule.

Applying the guidance of the AP Stylebook to your digital content is a choice.

Using sentence case, title case, or initial-caps on your buttons is a choice.

Centering user-needs in your content planning is a choice.

Heck, even spelling things “correctly” is a choice.

Writing and design rules (or principles or best practices or whatever you prefer) exist, certainly, but those rules aren’t forces of nature. They aren’t universal constants. They are options. They are design choices.

Rules are the choice to repeat a choice over and over, automatically. When you create a rule, you are making a design choice that says: “This is a good way to do this, and we want to keep doing it this way.”

And friend, do I love rules! Rules create efficiencies and automations. Rules eliminate needless conversations, wasteful back-and-forth, hemming and hawing. Decide, apply, move on. Rules are the most necessary ingredient for creating honest-to-goodness process: that set of logic and procedures that turns similar inputs into similar outputs. Rules are what content strategy, design ops, and most especially digital governance are all about.

That’s why I love rules. But we do have to choose our rules.

When design and product teams simply assume or inherit rules based on “best practices”, the only decision they’ve made is to skip over critical thinking. Much like design principles, business goals, or anything else that guides your product work, the “rules” of grammar, style, and usage that apply to your products should be considered, evaluated, and implemented in an intentional way. Rules are made to be chosen.

This philosophy – that there aren’t really any universal writing rules, just choices – informs how I approach teaching writing in a design context. I find that focusing on intention, on what you’re trying to accomplish with your writing, for whom, and why, is more interesting and motivating to people than a litany of abstract rules about subject-verb agreement or participles or whatever.

Teach the choice, teach how to think, and you’ll have better, happier writers.