Feeling a little rebellious? Fed up with following rules?
Everyone tells us what to do. Eat more fruit. Drink less alcohol. Get up early. Don’t jump red traffic lights. Hold the handrail.
I know I’m guilty, too. Almost weekly, I’ve been telling you how to write and which mistakes to avoid.
So, today is different. Today, we talk about rules you can ignore, so your writing life becomes a little easier, and perhaps your writing even gets better, too.
Why you can ignore these rules
Imagine no traffic rules existed. No traffic lights, and no roundabouts. How would you get around your home town? Would traffic move faster or slower?
Traffic rules help us drive (or cycle or walk) both safer and faster. We can anticipate what others will do. We know when it’s our turn to cross safely. We avoid chaos on the road.
Writing rules are similar. They exist to avoid confusion, so readers can grasp your ideas without stumbling around. Without having to guess what you tried to say.
For instance, rules exist about spelling you’re vs your and their vs there. These are strict rules because a misspelling wrong-foots your readers.
Rules exist for concise writing, too. These rules are less strict, but important because unwieldy writing slows your readers down. That’s why we need to be careful with adverbs, eliminate the future tense, and avoid weak words.
But a small selection of rules is cosmetic. These rules are dreamed up by high school teachers who like telling us we’ve made mistakes. Well, let’s stop caring about these so-called mistakes because we’ve more important rules to worry about.
Writing rule #1: Don’t start your sentence with But, Or, Because, or And
You can break this rule, because shorter sentences are easier to read. They add energy to your writing. And by starting with a word like And you stress a specific point in your writing.
Apple‘s copywriters, for instance, love starting a sentence with But or And.
When you merge the two sentences, the longer sentence becomes cumbersome and harder to understand:
Here’s another example:
When you string the three sentences together, the rhythm changes:
Listen to the rhythm of your writing. Which version sounds better? Your writing requires a mix of long and snappy sentences.
Writing rule #2: Don’t use broken sentences
Broken sentences don’t befuddle our readers. Instead, we add clarity. By stressing words. (Like that.)
That’s why you should feel confident to use fragments instead of full sentences. Free yourself from the rule of broken sentences.
Apple’s copywriters love broken sentences, too:
Live Photos. Lasting memories.
The rhythm changes when you use a full sentence instead:
Here’s another example:
The words intuitively and efficiently lose stress when you add them to the previous sentence:
Broken sentences add stress to specific phrases. They change the tone of your writing, making it snappier. And more energetic.
Writing rule #3: Each paragraph must contain three to five sentences
Who said that?
When each paragraph has the same number of sentences, your writing looks boring. Good writing is well designed. A one-sentence paragraph stands out, attracting your reader’s attention. It also breaks up a pattern of monotone blocks of text.
Here’s a fragment from All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (one of my favorite reads this year):
Where is he? The sweet, slightly chemical scent of gun oil; the raw wood of newly constructed shell crates; the mothballed odor of old bedspreads–he’s in the hotel. Of course. L’hôtel des Abeilles, the Hotel of Bees.
Still night. Still early.
From the direction of the sea come whistles and booms; flak is going up.
The number one rule of writing
Your job as a writer is to communicate your ideas. To allow readers to visualize your story and feel your words.
So your number one rule is to write for your readers.
When your readers get irritated by grammar mistakes, you’re wrong. When your readers stumble over your sentences, you’ve made a mistake. When readers don’t get your ideas, your communication isn’t clear enough.
Writing is not about sticking to grammar rules. Writing is about communicating ideas with clarity.
Let your ideas shine.
And inspire your readers.