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How to Break Writing Rules the Right Way

Name a teacher who made it their job in life to make sure you knew and followed every single writing rule? There’s a name running through your head right now. For me, it’s Mrs. Wilson - my Gr 10 English teacher. She loved making sure her students knew every rule there was to know about academic writing. She’s the one who taught me,

  1. Never use “I” in an essay

  2. Never start a sentence with because

  3. Never start a sentence with but or and

  4. Never end a sentence on a preposition

  5. Never use a sentence fragment

  6. Never use slang or colloquial language

  7. Never have a paragraph with more than 5-6 sentences

  8. Never have a one sentence paragraph

Never do this, never do that. Never, never, never. Her Never List never ended.

Although I’m pretty sure Mrs. Wilson is no longer standing at the front of Room 112, the fact that you can also name a rule-preacher-teacher shows Mrs. Wilson’s well-intended yet certainly misguided message is widespread.

What’s the misguided message exactly?

It’s two-fold. First, that formal academic writing always looks, sounds, and structures itself in a certain way. And second, that the more closely you adhere to an arbitrary set of rules, the better you will be at writing.

For years, I was haunted by Mrs. Wilson's Never Rules and their judgment of me as a writer. Then, in my first year of uni, I accepted a job as a senior writing tutor and I met some amazing and smart students. As I confidently shared the writing rules I'd been taught and devoutly followed, several of my students questioned me about them. Not in a defiant or rude way, but in a genuine and curious kind of way.

Their questions sometimes - most of the time - stumped me. I didn’t know why you should never begin a sentence with but. It’s pretty much the t-shirt version of however and however makes the first-word-of-a-sentence list.

That’s when I began to question Mrs. Wilson's Never List and I came to the conclusion that academic writing doesn’t have an absolute set of rules. It has a general set of characteristics and patterns, things that it often does (like using complete sentences) and things that it rarely does (like having one sentence stand alone as a paragraph.)

Here’s what this means for you.

What if instead of thinking about writing rules as unquestionable commandments, you thought of them as guidelines? What if instead of thinking you had to stick to a list of “never do’s,” you had the opportunity to play with language a little? What if instead of being told you had to follow a rule, you were given ways to think about writing so you could decide for yourself how and when it's useful, or if it has any use at all?

It’s possible to get rid of the Never List and open up your writing - yes, even your academic writing - to creativity, playfulness and exploration. You just need to know a few things.

Here are 3 things you need to know to liberate your creative and critical thinking skills, and break academic writing rules the right way.

1`. When it comes to breaking grammar rules, do it intentionally.

Things like periods, commas, and sentence structure matter. These are tools a writer uses to share his ideas clearly. Simply put, when grammar isn’t used correctly, clarity and understanding are at risk of being replaced by ambiguity and confusion. This puts your reader in a position to rely on their own interpretation and draw their own conclusions. Since this is something you want to avoid in your academic writing, you need to be selective when you’re playing with grammar rules and have a reason for doing it.

I tell my students, first you have to know the rules, then you have to be able to apply the rules, and then you can break the rules. Your reader needs to trust that you’re able to use grammar correctly before he will recognize an incorrect use of grammar as intentional and pause to consider your reason for doing it.

Remember, If your writing is laden with grammatical errors, your reader won’t think, “Wow! This is avant-garde writing.” He’ll just think, “Whoa. This is a mess.”

2. Know who you’re writing for.

You want to make sure you have a pretty good idea of who you’re writing for before you decide to rewrite your own version of the academic’s handbook.

My literary non-fiction prof welcomed an essay peppered with sarcasm and humour. My post-modern literature prof encouraged his students to play with the structure and organization of an essay in the same way the post-modernists played with the structure and organization of a narrative. Both of my profs liked different things and their preferences influenced how I played with language and writing conventions.

Take a little time and get to know your prof’s preferences. Listen to how she speaks, skim one or two articles she’s published, look at the language she’s used in the course syllabus and writing assignments, and use these to gauge how tightly or lightly you should stick to writing guidelines.

3. Remember that taking risks keeps you learning.

Writing guidelines (formerly known as rules) help you set boundaries in your writing, but not all guidelines deserve the same respect. As someone who wants to become a better critical thinker and writer, you need to take inventory of the writing guidelines you observe and decide for yourself which ones have merit and which ones are just plain silly. On the Never List I was taught, I would put #1, 2, 3, 4, & 7 in the silly pile. And, I would say #5, 6, 8 have a little more merit and deserve a little more consideration before being broken.

As a writer and a critical thinker, you need to think about how the writing guidelines you’ve been taught to follow shape your message and affect how you write. Are they obscuring it any way? Or, are the preventing you from sharing it in the most authentic and meaningful way possible? If so, you might need to take a risk and break a rule. Because, while rules keep you safe, breaking rules keeps you learning.

Hey! I'm Jenn. I create jargon-free, ready-to-use digital writing tutorials filled with simple drawings and relatable examples for students who want to explain and organize their ideas more clearly, and change their grades on their writing assignments dramatically.

Click here to find easy-to-read, non-wordy, and creatively designed writing tutorials that have helped thousands of students get BIG results!

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