Rules for writing

September 7, 2016 00:15 AM Shyam Sharma

There are no rules for good writing, except the rule of understanding context, complexity, and change
Don’t use big words. Use active voice whenever you can. Build to a climax. Don’t start a sentence with “and” or “but.” Avoid this at all cost. Do that whenever you can. 

Rules and advice about writing well are all too common whatever society or country we go to. But the reality is that no rules always help. 

There are reasons why generalized rules and suggestions are popular, eagerly sought, offered unsolicited. Generalization is a powerful tool for teaching and learning, an intellectual process that is at the heart of how humans learn. When we notice that dogs and cats and cows and monkeys and bears all have common features such as four legs and fur, we come up with a new name to refer to all of them at once: animals. When we find out that many types of snakes are poisonous, we assume that they all could be. 

Indeed, any generalization provides useful information in a certain extent. But language use is a far more complex, varied, and abstract phenomenon than, say, appearance or behavior of animals. Norms of language use keep changing, and the conclusions we draw from one culture, discourse, or context (time, place, prior knowledge of the other person; belief and feelings we want to convey, etc) don’t apply to others. 

Let us take a common piece of writing advice: use simple words. The common word “because” may be necessary and appropriate for some audiences, contexts, and purposes; but the word’s less common alternatives like “on account of” may be stylistically or rhetorically necessary or appropriate in other contexts. Similarly, passive voice may be necessary or appropriate in many situations (e.g. “Two people were killed in the accident.”). Starting with blunt statement of key idea may be necessary in some contexts and genres but breaking bad news may demand starting with a buffer. 

This doesn’t mean that we can never give anyone any suggestions for writing well. In fact, there are two quite effective approaches writing instructors use that are related to generalization. The first is to train students to analyze linguistic, rhetorical, and discourse features of different genres of text so that students can learn to read and write new genres on their own. By learning to break down textual characteristics, learners can make sense of new texts, develop meta-language to discuss them, and assess and improve others’ and their own writing. I say “related to generalization” because this approach actually goes in the opposite direction of deductive application of general rules or understanding: it helps to identify patterns in similar texts. 

The second approach writing instructors use that is related to generalization is to teach genres of texts. Genres, in a more critical analysis, are not simply “types” of texts that have a fixed set of textual features; instead, they are “systems of communicative activity” where texts with shared linguistic features perform certain functions, are used for negotiating ideas and relationships, and evolve over time. Here, too, generalizations about features and functions of texts need to be done with the awareness of contextual contingency and variables, complexity and fluidity, tensions and change. 

Ultimately, learning to write is a life-long process of trying to induce rules from new forms of writing, new discourse communities, and new demands of learning and work. Writing well not only demands the mastery of new genres and discourses but also understanding of the disciplines and professions, conventions and expectations of the communities that use writing to communicate and get other things done. This is why a brilliant writer in high school may struggle to meet the expectations of professors in college, and a talented college-level writer may be daunted by the demands of writing in graduate school. 

Whereas writing at the undergraduate level tends to demand the ability to handle nuance while demonstrating knowledge, graduate studies further demands taking intellectual positions and advancing new arguments and ideas in relation to existing scholarship. 

The difficulty of deriving and applying general rules for effective writing mainly has to do with the explosion of information and the hyper-specialization of bodies of knowledge. For example, on the one hand, the rapid increase in the amount of information and knowledge that people access and use has led to demands for foregrounding main ideas even in longer texts; on the other, how ideas are organized and presented must depend on specific venues, mediums, and communities those factors create. For instance, most of the research articles in an academic journal of biochemistry may contain certain sections (such as introduction, review of literature, method and experiment, findings, discussions, and conclusion); most articles reporting experiments in that journal may also state their objectives in relation to gaps in current knowledge, doing so in the introduction. 

But a similar journal with a slightly different research mission or one that is published from another country or place may request authors to include a different set of sections and organize or present ideas differently. While the specialization of knowledge may lead to specific conventions and demands by gatekeepers and communities of readers and writers, the same advancement of knowledge can also demand divergent methods of presenting new knowledge. 

The deep desire people have for rules to always write well is understandable. Most significantly, most people are taught that writing is a general (and therefore generalizable) skill that is learned once and for all. Good writing is widely associated with talent with language, mastery of words in general, and a knack for creatively expressing ideas. Maybe the especially talented master writers have a few secrets that they can share with the world. Unfortunately, “good writers” is a myth, for there is only good writing, and good writing is contextual. 

Without specific training and experience, Shakespeare wouldn’t be able to write a proposal for a NASA grant; just like a successful scientist who has won many of these grants can’t write Hamlet. There are certainly no rules for writing dramatic texts (other than patterns that we may identify by studying some), but it is also impossible for anyone with just generalized rules for writing grant proposals to write a winning submission. The strategies for writing a proposal will range from a few general ideas to many more specific decisions based on stated and implicit expectations and conventions. 

When it comes to writing, most people’s skills and abilities are more complex than what they say and believe. That is, even those who possess specialized writing skills in their distinct academic disciplines and professional contexts tend to define writing as a mechanical skill. As such, when they discuss what good or effective writing is, they forget the many higher-order linguistic, rhetorical, and discourse decisions they practically make and just focus on correct sentences and precise wording as “writing.” And because grammar and syntax become key issues, “rules” of correctness and appropriateness trump more complex issues. 

In reality, there are no rules for good writing—other than the rule of always trying to understand context, complexity, and change.

The author is an assistant professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University (State University of New York) 

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