Writing Rules andTips for Our Bloggers

Millions of native English speakers think they can’t write.  Yet they generate thousands of clear, original sentences every day in conversations and e-mail.  So why do so many clear, intelligent thinkers panic, and become illiterate, when asked to write their thoughts down?

Modern word procesor

Modern word processopr

Most were simply taught wrong, told to follow writing rules that are not even writing rules because they have nothing to do with clear,  When they broke writing rules, the teacher scribbled all over their ideas in red ink, and deducted points from their grade.  When the poor kid grows up, and has to write, he is so afraid of making a mistake that he can’t even start.  Writing is punishment.

Better to talk on the phone, and sacrifice the joy of receiving and composing a personal sentiment, or creating a permanent record someone can save or share. If you went to private school, or are under 35, you might have been taught better

Writing Rules that Are Not Rules

Everyone understands the expression between you and I, but it it breaks writing rules everybody learned in school.  The rule’s  purpose is to remind everyone that English comes largely from Latin.    Its other purpose is to allow  people who memorized the rule in school to judge a writer’s intelligence, literacy, and control of the language.

Remember the scene in Sex and the City?  Carrie feels utterly inferior to her beloved Mr. Big’s perfect wife, until the woman sends Carrie a Thank You note that shows she does not know whether to use their, there, or they’re. Carrie’s sense of inferiority turns instantly to superiority. Her glittery rival is STUPID.

It’s the same with it’s (it is) and its (something belongs to it), and your (something belongs to you) or you’re (you are). The writing rules that cover this are:  Possessive pronouns (their, your, and its)  never take an apostrophe (‘).  Contractions (words made by skipping letters,  (you’re and it’s)  always do.,

These are easy mistakes to make, especially when you’re writing fast, as you should on your first draft.  It doesn’t mean you’re ignorant, but you need to go back and correct these confusions even professionals make on first drafts. If not, your reader will think you’re  stupid or ignorant, and your ideas will lose credibility. That’s why it’s a good idea to follow those writing rules.

Don’t Follow Writing Rules Over a Cliff

Harry Truman's salty language did not always follow writing rules, but his wriitten speeches always did.

Harry Truman’s salty language did not always follow writing rules, but his written speeches always did.

Joining complete ideas (independent clauses)  with a comma followed by the linking words (conjunctions}  and, or, but, and sometimes for, is perfectly grammatical, usually clear, and very often a good way to achieve variety in sentence structure..

But splicing more than two independent  clauses in one sentence with commas and conjunctions is usually bad writing. Unless the clauses are  very short, and parallel to one another, consider changing the long sentence to two sentences.

More than one comma splice in a sentence makes it feel strung out.  It’s  OK in speech but awkward in writing. I see this a lot when untrained, inexperienced writers submit blogs to wellneesswodworks.com  It’s easy to correct, and I won’t judge you for it.

The “serial comma rule” you must never break.  It changes your meaning and can confuse the reader. Compare these sentences (which were the punchline of a joke and the title of a book):

The panda eats shoots and leaves.

The panda eats, shoots, and leaves.

Without the commas, the first sentence says what the panda eats. The second sentence describes a panda who, after eating, pulls out a gun, shoots somebody, and walks away.

Some writing rules really are rules because breaking them changes your meaning.

Eliminate Excess Words

As an editor, virtually every piece I see is riddled with excess words.  So is my own writing.  In fact, the only writer I know whose work has almost no excess words is Ernest Hemingway, who has been out of fashion for decades because of his politically incorrect ideas about women, hunting, and guns.

But every writer should read something he wrote, and use it as an ideal of sparse, unsentimental prose. Future generations are lucky that he worked before the invention of word processors, and many of his early drafts still exist.  We can see the pains he went through to squeeze out every unnecessary word.

Thank goodness, and the “Delete button” on my computer, nobody will see my wordy, awkward early drafts. You can’t think about excess words when you write your first draft.  That should flow quickly from your brain through your hands to the page.  Only then should you go back and eliminate excess words.  Here are some writing rules (guidelines, really) that will minimize your excess words:

  • Build your ideas with simple, straightforward nouns and verbs you can see, feel, taste,  touch, or smell.  Nouns and verbs — the more concrete the better — are stronger than adjectives, adverbs, or “idea words,” which are often vague, and need to be explained.
  • Prefer the standard to the offbeat.  Offbeat language, dialect, and slang call attention to themselves.  They can create emphasis when used SPARINGLY by a writer with a good ear.  But the more you do it,the less emphatic and powerful it is.  So make every variation from standard English count.
  • Avoid jargon — language spoken and understood only by an in-group.  All acronyms, no matter how common,  are jargon.  Spell them out on first reference, as in the United Nations International  Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).  Once you tell the reader what it is, acronyms are OK.
  •  Laws and government programs are often referred to in shorthand that becomes more familiar than the name. “Title IX” is part of a federal law requiring high schools and colleges to spend as much on women’s sports as men’s.  Once you define it on first reference, you can refer to it as Title 9.  

Readers will HATE you if you use jargon they don’t know without explaining it, for excluding them from the special group that knows without being told.  Never assume that “everybody knows.”

Are the writing rules you remember really rules?

Wordworks Blog Author: Ken Braiterman

Ken Braiterman, Wellness Wordworks board chair, has been an activist, news reporter, opinion writer, and columnist since 1968. From 1997 to 2009, he was New Hampshire's leading advocate for recovery-based mental health services. He is an advanced Wellness and Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) facilitator.

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