Failing to stay current on writing trends hurts writers and lessens their work
It seems everything I learned in school about writing was wrong. Okay, that’s an overstatement. But many of the lessons I mastered in school no longer apply or are just plain wrong.
However, I don’t think my teachers were in error over their instruction. Instead, the conventions changed.
Unfortunately, too many writers assume they work within a set of incontrovertible writing rules. And they are offended when told otherwise.
1) Two spaces to end a sentence: I’ve witnessed the transition from using two spaces to one to end a sentence. It happened over the past ten to fifteen years. This rule harkens back to the typewriter. Now we use computers, or should, and one space rules. Only someone out of touch would space-space anymore. And if they do, their writing skill is judged as less than.
2) Five spaces to start a paragraph: I hesitate to include this obsolete rule, but a couple of years ago the submission requirements said I must start each paragraph with five spaces. I couldn’t believe it. The five-space rule goes back to the days of manual typewriters and before the invention of the tab key. Yes, I have seen such beasts, but they were already antiques when I was a teen.
3) Don’t start sentences with conjunction In school, we’d get marked down if we failed to follow this rule, but ten years ago a college professor gave me permission to begin a sentence with a conjunction. And sometimes it feels like the right thing to do.
4) Don’t end a sentence with a preposition: This was another rule drilled into me, which some people claim was never a rule in the first place. Rewriting those preposition-ending sentences resulted in some of the most awkward-sounding constructs. Yet, I still see writers do just that.
5) You must have at least three sentences per paragraph: I remember being taught that a paragraph should have five to eight sentences. The minimum was three: opening sentence, one sentence for the body of the paragraph, and the concluding sentence. Now writers are told to keep their paragraphs short.
One sentence, or even one word, is acceptable.
6) Always use complete sentences: Sometimes an incomplete sentence more effectively communicates than a complete one. Do you think?
7) Use semicolons to connect two closely connected sentences: When I learned this neat trick, I used it a lot; maybe I used it too much. Now my revered semicolon is fallen out of favor, and I understand some editors prohibit it; that’s so sad.
8) Add color to your writing by inserting adjectives and adverbs: Yes, my teachers encouraged me to beef up my writing with the frequent use of adverbs and adjectives. Nowadays we call this purple prose, and there’s no place for it anymore.
9) Don’t use said for a dialogue tag: “It’s boring and unimaginative to always write said after a bit of dialogue,” my teacher said. Then she passed out a sheet of creative alternatives. “Use these instead,” she interjected. Now the trend is back to using said, even though it’s repetitive.
10) Do not use contractions: I never figured out why we’d have contractions if we couldn’t use them. But my teachers prohibited them, even for dialogue. Once I avoided using a contraction to add emphasis to a sentence, but my editor said I sounded stilted.
There’s more, but these ten will get you started.
The point is that writing evolves as does most everything and if we’re to stay at the top of our writing game, we better evolve, too.
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is an author, blogger, and publisher with over 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for insider tips and insights.