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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