The first rule of writing

rules-for-writeresPeople love rules – in writing as in everything else.  Lists of rules litter the internet: “Five rules for better paragraphs”, “Seven habits of successful writers”, “Ten top tips for clearer writing”.  (Those latter two might be labeled “habits” and “tips”, but they’re really presented as rules: do this and you will be successful; don’t, and you won’t.) I haven’t read “Rules for Writers”, but I’m willing to bet it’s just chock full of rules for writers.  Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover.

There’s really just one rule of writing, though, and that is There Are No Hardfast Rules.

Sorry about that.  It would be a lot easier if this wasn’t true – if I could tell you “always write in the morning”, or “always write the Results first”, or “always use the active voice”.  But I can’t think of many things about writing that always work for every writer. Those that I can think of are trivial (always capitalize the first word of a sentence – gee, thanks!).  This is true for grammar – popular “rules” against splitting infinitives and placing prepositions at the ends of sentences, for example, are frequently violated to good effect.  It’s even truer for style: there isn’t one good way to organize a paragraph, but many.  It’s most true of all for writer behaviour. The way I write may not work for you, and the way you write may not work for you. Again: sorry about that.

One peer reviewer of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my guidebook for scientific writers, was disappointed that the book doesn’t offer more rules. Instead, it offers menus of things to try, with few unequivocal statements about The One That Works Best For Everyone.  Three ways to make one paragraph flow into another. Four ways to handle disagreement with a reviewer. Six ways to find and plan your story. Nine ways to get past writer’s block!  My book, like other good writing books*, provides what writers actually need: not a list of rules, but a toolbox and the advice that each writer needs to discover which tools work best for them.

Take, for instance, the nine ways to get past writer’s block.  Some work for me; some don’t; and some I’ve never even tried.  But each one works for some writers, and there’s no easy way for me to tell you which will work best for you.  Part of practicing your craft as a writer is to think consciously and carefully about your own behaviour, and to try a bunch of the tools in the toolbox until you learn how you can best motivate yourself to continue when you feel blocked.

This way of using the toolbox extends to almost every task on the writer’s agenda.  Take another example: sentence structure.  There isn’t one best sentence structure; instead, your choice should depend on the readers you’re trying to reach, the material you’re trying to communicate, and perhaps on your own voice as a writer. This complexity, of course, is one reason that good writing is hard. But it’s also one reason that good writing gets easier with practice.

I don’t want to sound completely nihilistic.  Some writing habits are productive for most people; some sentence structures (like those that use the active voice) are better than others most of the time.  And my book really does say so.  Furthermore, it helps to know a lot of the “rules” so you can go about breaking them when it’s appropriate to do so.  For these reasons and more, advice does help.  My book, among others, can help you judge which tools you’ll want to pull out of the toolbox most often, and when each will come in handy.

Two famous portraits: Rembrandt and Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890). Self-Portrait. Art Institute of Chicago (image in public domain). Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Self-Portrait with Plumed Beret. Isabella Stewart Gardner museum (image in public domain). Click to enlarge for detail.

The appetite for Rules for Good Writing is funny, when you think about it.  Writing is about communication (of course).  So is painting.  What are the Rules for Good Painting?  Exactly.  Rembrandt and Van Gogh had very different work habits, they wielded different brushes and made different strokes to apply different pigments, and they painted self-portraits with different lighting and different compositions.  Each self-portrait is a masterpiece**.

You may not write like me, or like anyone else (either in behaviour or in style).  But you can find ways to write productively and clearly even so.  Writing guides can help; hewing to lists of “rules for good writing” mostly won’t.  Vive la différence; vive toutes les différences!

© Stephen Heard ( October 3, 2016

 This post is based, in part, on material from The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my guidebook for scientific writers. You can learn more about it here.

*^See what I did there?

**^We shouldn’t push this analogy too far. Scientific writing is not as rule-free as fiction writing, for instance.  Scientists can and should have some voice in their scientific writing; but I don’t ever expect to see papers published with voice contrasts like that between Ernest Hemingway and Mario Vargas Llosa.  A toolbox, yes; but at least in terms of style, not quite of unlimited size.


10 thoughts on “The first rule of writing

  1. Aaron Dalton

    If there is an overall rule of writing, it’s “never lose sight of your reader.” It’s so easy to fall into the trap of talking to oneself or close colleagues. But if your target audience (obviously journal articles have a different audience than mass market publication) isn’t going to understand what you’ve written the first time they read it, then you’re wasting your time.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. whatfisheat

        Titles are one of my least favourite parts of writing. I am all for the development of a random title generator app for manuscripts.


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