The difference between a writing rule and a good idea

Why do we have writing rules?

There is a lot of advice about how to improve writing. Some of it is not very helpful or may even make writing more difficult, especially if the advice is delivered as a rule.

How do writing rules evolve?

Sarah struggled with writing long paragraphs and found it helpful if she forced herself not to write more than seven sentences for each paragraph. Sarah said to Peter, “You should restrict your paragraphs to no more than seven sentences.” Peter tried this and it worked for him. He also found that it helped him if he also made sure his paragraphs were not too short. Later, he told his friend Sia that “It’s a good idea if paragraphs are no more than seven sentences and no less than three”. Sia told her friends in her tutorial group, “I’ve heard that paragraphs should be no more than seven sentences and no less than three”. If a suggestion is communicated with absolutes, such as, ‘should’, then it is more easily passed off as a rule. Problems then occur as many do not question something, if they believe it is a rule.

When teaching I am often asked questions phrased as ‘What is the writing rule for…’. I respond by making a clear distinction between what is a rule and what is simply a good idea. Then there is a third option that requires critical thinking and considered thought, before any advice is followed. This is the “Well it depends…” option.

Perhaps some advice ends up as a rule because it appears easier to teach using a black and white perspective. The problem with writing rules is that there are always exceptions. If there are too many exceptions then the rule becomes ambiguous, difficult to learn and difficult to teach. This is the case for some grammar, spelling and punctuation rules.

Some rules are good

Some rules are more important than others. Many grammar rules are essential. We need verbs in sentences otherwise we wouldn’t know what was going on; we need a subject so that we know who or what was doing the thing that was going on. Some grammar rules are important and some are no longer used or followed. Some rules are termed usage rules. Descriptive grammar is when grammar rules are taught based on current usage of the language while Prescriptive grammar is when grammar rules are taught based on rules that generally don’t change and are seen as absolute.

Some rules are archaic or out-dated

Never split your infinitives’ is a rule that dictates one must never place an adverb between ‘to’ and a verb’ (‘You have to quickly speak’ versus ‘You have to speak quickly’). This rule is no longer supported by the Oxford Dictionary yet is still commonly taught. The justification was based on an ancient Latin rule.

Some good suggestions need not be considered a rule

Some rules are just good ideas disguised as rules, for example, the advice that will help your consistency and flow, such as, ‘Always have the same size bullet point indents’. Instead ‘Be consistent with bullet point indents‘ is better: you will not be fined or lose your job if you change the size of your indents halfway through your report.

Some rules are not so good

Then there are rules that are, perhaps at best, only vaguely helpful. A student once claimed that their supervisor strictly enforced the rule to ‘Never write paragraphs shorter than three sentences or longer than seven’. Why? Why not? Who is this rule going to help? Once writing rules are let loose, they are hard to reclaim. Take the mantra we learned at school to supposedly help us with spelling, ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’. This was nicely fielded by Simon Taylor’s tweet ‘Except when you run a feisty heist on a weird beige foreign neighbour’ and is now also a t-shirt. Also, ‘Never start a sentence with, ‘However’, which must have come from the rule that you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction. Personally, I have no problem starting a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’, as long as it makes sense. But down that path lies doom as it goes against writing convention. Then there is the ‘which and that‘ rule which, according to Jonathon Owen, someone simply made up, while the ‘Never end a sentence with a preposition’ rule is one of Grammar Girl’s Top Ten Grammar Myths.

Some writing rules might help some people some of the time, but it’s the exceptions that leaves others fretting and googling. Some people prefer rules because they appear easy to learn and follow instead of having to work through writing problems.

Some rules reflect current convention

Then there is convention, which is defined as ‘what people usually do‘ or ‘an agreement between states covering particular matters, especially one less formal than a treaty‘. There are many writing conventions that are also camouflaged as writing rules. For example, the imperative not to use active voice is very strong in some academic disciplines as it is argued that it is un-objective, which, in science, is bad. The jury is still out and different disciplines have different ideas. There are occasions when active language is necessary; for example, to distinguish your ideas from someone else’s; for example when “It is considered that compound X is not necessary for short assays”, the reader might not know who did the considering; whether this is the author’s conclusion or a general, uncited principle gleaned from general knowledge and understanding of that topic. There are occasions when active language is not necessary; for instance in the Materials and Methods sections of reports, but then this might depend on whether a new method is being developed.

Write first

Yes, we want to avoid writing gobbledegook but let us write for clarity first, and then worry about convention. The top priority when writing about science is not to compromise your meaning. Make sure that what you write is clear and succinct and that your presentation is consistent and easy to navigate. Always get feedback from your friends and colleagues if you want to know if you are making sense. Then you can worry about whether you have followed conventions that will allow your document to get published.

© Dr Marina Hurley 2019

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