Anyone who’s been writing for more than a day or so knows that writing carries a bunch of rules. There are hundreds of rules or even thousands, perhaps a million, way too many to keep track of. These rules flood our minds and threaten to overwhelm. There are rules for how to punctuate a sentence, rules for word usage and sentence construction, rules for paragraph structure and book-length, rules for grammar and capitalization, and yes, rules for spelling.
Writing is full of rules, and wise writers strive to learn—and follow—them all.
Why? Because without rules, the congregation of letters would fall into anarchy and writing would fail to communicate. We need rules to give structure so our audience can understand.
Occasionally, I run across writers who choose to ignore the rules of writing. Their attitude is “I’m a free spirit and my writing reflects that; rules only get in my way and limit my creativity.” Yeah, sure. In reality, they’re just lazy.
Having said that, here are three things to know about the rules of writing:
1) Almost every rule has been broken at some point. The key is to do so sparingly and for a good reason, an extremely deliberate reason. The judicious breaking of rules, however, requires that they first are understood; ignorance is not acceptable. If we lack a well-considered justification for breaking a particular rule, then we shouldn’t do it.
2) Some rules change over time. Sage writers are alert to the ever-shifting conventions we must follow. Be aware that some of what we learned in grade school is no longer correct. While it’s wise to let others lead these changes, it’s equally unwise to resist them. In general, follow the consensus.
3) Some rules never were. Sometimes the preferences of our teachers take on the weight of law, instead of merely strongly held opinions. Other times, an adage is repeated often enough that it acquires the status of a rule even though it’s not. Though I can’t state this as fact, I’ve learned from people who should know, that there is no basis to the rule that we should never end a sentence with a preposition. Surely, some will cringe at this; for me, I feel a huge relief.
As wise writers, we must write rightly: learn the rules of writing, follow them diligently, and break them only when there’s a clear reason.
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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.