10 Writing Rules You Can’t Break…And How to Break Them

A guest post by Eric Cummings of On Violence

First, there was the “old school.” A bunch of stubborn grammarians got together and decided what defined “proper English.” Don’t end sentences with prepositions, never begin a sentence with “and” or “but,” and never split infinitives. They were strict, but they established the rules of modern English grammar.

Then came the “new school” in the sixties. And like the sixties, it was “craaaaaaazy.” As language evolved, they evolved. Led by William Zissner and John Trimble, these writers thumbed their noses at tradition, preferring natural, conversational writing to old, formalized prose.

Well, as part of the millennial generation, I’ve got some criticisms for the “new school”, “the old school” and other pieces of advice that I think hold writers back. (Feel free add your own rules you love to break in the comments section below.)

1. Be Clear and Concise . . . But Not Simple.

This advice is considered gospel for a reason: nothing is worse than confused, labyrinthine prose. This includes needlessly bureaucratic writing and writing stuffed with more adverbs and colorful adjectives than Kobayashi after a hot dog eating competition. More words do not equal better prose.

At the same time, clear writing is different than simple writing. Don’t simplify your ideas to make your prose clearer. Write essays or blog posts that discuss about complex thoughts. Just present them clearly with the right amount of words needed. No more and no less.

Also, feel free to write long sentences and paragraphs. In fact, you need to or your prose will quickly become monotonous.

2. Be Confident . . . But Don’t Be Arrogant.

I see this advice all the time: write with confidence. But it’s a thin line between confident and arrogant. And I hate arrogant people. You probably do too.

This advice is intended to prevent writers from using wishy-washy verbs, adjectives or qualifiers. But let me ask you: do you want to come off as rude or arrogant? Perhaps you write a political blog. Write like Mark Shields or David Brooks than Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann. There is no reasons to call your political rivals the “worst person in the world” or a “pinhead.” Some graciousness to the people who disagree with you goes along way.

3. Use Small, Every Day Words . . . But Use Big Words Too.

This has become the new school mantra. “Simplify your prose to make it more natural,” they say. “Avoid big words.” I disagree. To my taste, there is nothing better than a big word used well. They convey meaning and subtlety that small words simply can’t. “Amber” is more evocative than “yellow”; “evocative” is more exciting than “descriptive.”

That said, let big words come naturally. Never go hunting through a thesaurus for a big word, and don’t over do it. If you read regularly, your vocabulary will expand naturally. I say let it.

4. Don’t Use The Passive Voice . . . But What Is It?

Even amateur writers know not to use passive constructions like, “Jim was stung by a bee.” But what is the passive voice? According to Geoffrey Pollum, even the writing sages Strunk and White misidentify the passive voice in the The Elements of Style. And as screenwriter John August found out, his readers don’t know what the passive voice is, and instinctively strike out all to be verb + infinitive constructions.

So one, learn what the passive voice is. And two, as both of the above writers pointed out, in some cases passive constructions are superior to active constructions.

5. Don’t Use Adverbs . . . But What Is An Adverb and Why Not?

Do you know what an adverb is? A word that ends in “-ly”? That’s what I thought. Then I found out “later,” “sideways,” “downstairs” or any other word that modifies a verb’s time, place, manner, or degree is an adverb. (Don’t think I’m a genius, I first heard about this on the Grammar Grater podcast.)

But what about the dreaded “–ly” adverb? Use it, but don’t abuse it. Inventive, creative “-ly” adverbs will make your writing better. Redundant, staid “-ly” adverbs will make your writing laborious and, well, staid.

6. Write Exciting Titles . . . But Don’t Write Checks Your Butt Can’t Cash.

I’ll be honest, I’m sick of misleading “clever” titles. I hate getting excited to read an article and then getting taken right back down when I realize the writer hasn’t delivered what they promised.

A real world example: I bought lasagna at the store today, and the lasagna was packed in a small box inside a larger box to make it look bigger. Make sure your post’s “lasagna” matches up to the headline’s “packaging.”

7. Write Lists . . . But Seriously, They Are Over Done.

Lists have their place, and I’m not really in a position right now to disparage them. I just think they are over done. (When Time magazine does a whole issue dedicated to Top Ten lists, you know they have jumped the shark.) There is a whole world of blogging from film reviews to politics where lists have no place. Lists are great for some niches; just don’t feel you have to turn every post into one. And definitely don’t feel like you need to stick five pieces of additional advice at the bottom of every post.

Also, never write top ten lists. (Unless you have some ironic or humorous intent behind it.)

8. Post Regularly . . . But Don’t Overwhelm Me.

I like your blog. Honestly, I do. But I don’t want to read it four times a day. Please, you are overwhelming me.

I have friends who say my blog posts too often, and my blog only posts 3-4 times a week. Remember, not all of your readers are Internet junkies. Think about them too.

9. Ignore Those Stodgy Grammarians and “word police” . . . At Your Own Peril.

Every book on writing I’ve ever read has told me to ignore the conservative grammar police, and yet nothing is worse than having someone point out a mistake you didn’t even know you made. Buy books on grammar and usage, listen to grammar podcasts, and learn the rules of grammar. Then feel free to flaunt them.

10. Break All the Rules . . . But Know The Rules Before You Break Them.

Eric Cummings writes for On Violence, a blog on military and foreign affairs, art, and violence, written by two brothers–one a soldier and the other a pacifist.

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23 thoughts on “10 Writing Rules You Can’t Break…And How to Break Them”

  • Sarah says:

    Excellent advice! Since I started to blog regularly (and therefore write regularly), I’ve found it really difficult to somehow walk the line between boring, linguistically correct writing and more authentic, individual writing.

    The passive voice is a particular issue – sometimes it just sounds better, and conveys my thoughts better than the active voice, but Microsoft Word always picks me up on it. And then I second-guess myself, and my writing becomes less authentic. As a result, I’ve just turned off Microsoft’s grammar check. Problem solved!

  • As the man (Hazlitt?) said: “Rules and models are the enemies of genius and art” and as the other guy said “if in doubt, prefer geniality to good grammar.” 🙂

  • Annemieke says:

    Loved the post, but I guess I have to learn some more rules before I can break them. I never knew I should not start a sentence with ‘but’ or ‘and’. I even have the feeling I do it all the time.

    I never heard of adverbs and do not know what a passive voice is. So I will certainly go research that a bit, that at least I know it when I am breaking rules 🙂

    But apart from that, there are certain things I also noticed that are difficult to balance. First where you say to discuss about complex thoughts and use the right amount of words needed.

    That is exactly what I am always trying to do but wow, is that hard!

    And it is even more difficult to find that balance between confident and arrogant. I know I am extremely sensitive to that myself and absolutely do not want to sound arrogant. But if I try to avoid it I am constantly saying things like ‘I think’’, I guess’, ‘mainly’, ‘sometimes’, ‘most of the time’ and so on.

    So my way around that is to just use it if I feel it is needed, but edit some of them out in the end. And more often think that blogging is not writing up evidence, but just my opinion and thoughts on things.

    And grammar, well I hope that gets better with more writing. I know I can’t avoid it totally, but boy am I annoyed if I spot them when I can’t edit them out.

  • Colbycheeze says:

    I see you recommended that we do not write that often, however when I look at some of the most successful blogs out there, in my niche…Zenhabits, Stevepavlina, etc… they all began with writing 15+ articles minimum per month for at least the first 2 years or so.

    Do you feel like that particular advice only applies to certain niches? That or perhaps it is best to start by writing as massive an amount of information as you can imagine until you have your readership built up and then transition to a lesser post schedule? *shrug*

  • Eric C says:

    @ Sarah – I don’t really use a grammar check. Spell check picks up small little errors, but grammar check I feel like I should know, based on how much I read and write. Great advice.

    @ Matthew – Have you heard of the Oulipo lit movement?

    @ Annemieke – Check out some books on writing, like Elements of Style, On Writing Well, Writing with Style, if you want to learn about the passive voice and adverbs.

    @ colbycheeze – I feel really strongly about this. I think if you post over two or three times a day, I’m going to get over-whelmed and not read as much. Now, a lot of blogs find success doing this, but i’d recommend against it.

    Also, twitter has replaced a lot of the point of earlier blog posts that just linked to other blogs.

  • Make sure your post’s “lasagna” matches up to the headline’s “packaging.”

    I love that. You perfectly express your point and use food (my favorite metaphor) to make a point about writing. Brilliant.

    Sometimes the constraint of rules can unleash great creativity. Think Shakespeare with his iambic pentameter and – outside of writing – classical musicians who adhere to strict rules about form, tempo, etc. So #9 resonates for me as well. Sometimes we point to the internet itself, that free-wheeling land of chaos, as justification for breaking all the rules of writing. Yet, if everyone breaks the rules, then breaking the rules becomes the norm. In this case, maybe following the rules will provide that breath of fresh air.

  • Michael C says:

    A quick note on Ands and Buts. My co-blogger and I have come up with a rule that in a post about one page long, you can get away with one of each. The only time the rule is good is when sentences should be together, but the .And separates them. Basically, too much of a good thing is never a good thing.

  • Eric C says:

    @ AMI – Thanks for the kind words. I really liked that analogy too.

    I think rules are refreshing, they force you to be more creative than total freedom.

  • Redford says:

    What about the rule that you shouldn’t use the same word to begin a series of sentences. For example:

    “They ran. They ran for a long time. They grew tired from running. They ran on.”

    It seems like lazy writing or a lack of imagination. The paragraph formed doesn’t flow well. Yet I like breaking this rule because those abrupt halts in flow give the action of the sentence extra emphasis; extra attention.

    I also like using fabricated words and making up my own words. I find scrumsulacious.

  • Good post. Enjoyed it. I think most people, though, are better off with short paragraphs on the internet. Large paragraphs appear intimidating to the eye, and short ones much more welcoming. But I’m sure there are writers out there who can get away with it.

  • Eric C says:

    @ Bamboo forest – On long paragraphs.I see way too many blogs hamstring themselves with only short paragraphs, that gets monotonous. I’m just asking for a variation. Yes, a 10 or 12 sentence paragraph is bad form, but nothing is wrong with the occasional long 6 sentence paragraph, in my opinion.

  • j guevara says:

    First and foremost, ya gotta know ’em before you break ’em. As in music, one is called harmonic dissonance, the other is called noise.

  • Barb Sawyers says:

    I think we need to ignore the old rules that don’t help readers understand but stick with the ones that help. So it’s always OK to start a sentence with a connecting word but never OK to confuse it’s and its and other words that sound alike. It’s easier to remember a simple distinction like this than to sort through all the old rules. Lots more on my blog.

  • Great post. Important stuff here. Everybody who’s in a critique group should read it–especially what you say about the passive voice. People so often confuse the progressive tense “I was running into a wall,” with the passive voice “The wall was being run into by me.”

    I’m amazed how many writers know nothing of grammar. As you say, you have to know the rules before you can break them. Picasso could paint the human body perfectly before he learned to abstract the image.

  • Eric C says:

    @ J – I love the analogy. Yeah, what Thelonious Monk does is completly fdifferent than what a three year old does.

    @ Barb – rules are made to be broken. Expect common grammatical rules to go away as lang. evolves.

    @ Anne – I’ll admit, I was ignorant of grammar. but since I’ve started taking wirting seriously, I study grammar and read books on it.

  • Good advice. We should strive to write well in a clear simple way, yet not be afraid to lose various tools in our tool kits.

  • e.lee says:

    once you know all the rules inside out, they’re yours to break/bend/discard as how you see fit.

  • kevin says:

    Well, I have sold seven screenplays, thirteen plays and have worked on numerous TV shows and rounf tables. No one, and I mean NO one has told me I had too many ly words. In fact, I have several, major, Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning firnds who have called this complete nonsense. Worry about story and character. I mean, this rule seems sad and useless.

  • DiedofEnnui says:

    I don’t want to be *that* person, but I can’t help it…I think you mean we should feel free to “flout” the rules, not “flaunt” them.

    I like your attitude. And one of my pet peeves is blanket injunctions against the passive voice – especially from people who don’t know what it is! I had a boss who used to just cross out any form of the verb “to be.”

  • berruf says:

    A blog is your personal space, so you should feel free to take all risks. But yes, you don’t want to aleniate readers. But it’s great to break the mould once in a while.

  • Carly says:

    Number 6 really strikes a chord with me: I HATE it when the article doesn’t deliver. OR it does, but it is such a loose connection that they really shouldn’t have even bothered …

  • ray says:

    Re 1. Discuss means talk about

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