The rules you follow that make smart people think less of you

A new post over at the Daily Writing Tips blog discusses the contentious issue of paragraph length (gosh, we writers really are a sad bunch).

You know, that old rule drilled into us at school about never, ever, writing a paragraph that’s less than three sentences long.

I’m afraid I disagree with this ridiculously prescriptive idea. What if you can say what you’re trying to say in just two sentences?

Should you add extra wordage just so that you don’t break the rule? That, I think, would be a far worse crime against writing.

The post was in response to a DWT reader’s complaints about a Daily Telegraph article consisting of eleven one-sentence paragraphs.

Looking at the offending article, how many actual ‘ideas’ can you count? I counted precisely none. Lots of facts, but not a single idea.

In other words, the rules for academic writing, where you’re developing a thesis, do not apply to news reporting. (I’ve got a PhD and I’ve been published in The Times, so I should know.)

I suspect the whining DWT reader would have been more exasperated if that Telegraph article hadn’t been nicely broken down for them into neat, easily digestible one-sentence paragraphs.

What’s more, in the narrow columns of a newspaper – even more than with an online publication – text easily becomes hard to read if you don’t break it up.

I’m all for rules – provided we know why we’re following them. But slavish obedience to what you were taught at school reveals an uncritical mind.

Here are some other examples of where people stick to the rules unquestioningly:

– avoiding split infinitives (see my post ‘Splitting headaches’)

– not putting prepositions at the end of sentences

– never starting a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’

– thinking that ‘more than’ is somehow more correct than ‘over’

Whenever someone ‘corrects’ me for breaking these rules, I think less of their intellect. You have been warned.

13 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Rosie Fiore says:

    Couldn’t agree more. I’m as much of a word-and-grammar-nerd as the next writer, but my “rules” of writing are simple. if I read it back to myself, preferably aloud, does it read fluently, easily and musically? Generally, if it does, I’ll have obeyed the usual rules of grammar, but if I haven’t and it still works, I’ll keep it as it is.

  2. Clare Lynch says:

    Thanks, Rosie – we’re clearly soul-mates in our approach to writing!

    I completely agree about the question of musicality. It’s so hard to define, but you know it when you hear it – or don’t! In fact, I’ve been meaning to blog about the connections between music and writing for a while – I just wish my musical knowledge were better.

    My flute teacher tells me that, despite my protestations about not being able to sing, I have a good musical ear. I’m sure it comes from being a writer.

    Interestingly, in music, too, you often get a better result if you step away from the written text and play by ear.

  3. Chris says:

    Teachers are liars. And not necessarily bright. But when you’re ten, you don’t know any different.

    Consider physics: when you’re ickle, they tell you an atom is the smallest thing in the whole wide world. Then when you get a bit bigger, they tell you that atoms contain protons and neutrons and electrons – them be smaller. And if you’re bright enough not to get kicked out at the age of sixteen, they tell you about quarks.

    It’s a steady stream of lies. And that’s all there is to it.

  4. Clare Lynch says:

    Thanks, Chris. Your comment has reminded me that I need to write a post on that despicable phrase ‘knowledge transfer’, which we’re these days expected to receive in lieu of education.

  5. sudharm baxi says:

    This is certainly true. Writing has evolved over the period of time and hence the writers.

    You can’t stick to the old rules of writing in order to satiate the new readers who have less time to read more.

    Gone are the days of leisure reading, now everyone prefers quick reads. And a good show at paragraphs confirms the same.

  6. Clare Lynch says:

    Indeed, language is a constantly changing thing – if it weren’t we’d all be speaking the English of King Alfred.

    Actually, I seem to recall that Alfred was rather fond of the double negative, a perfectly acceptable practice in his day that would have modern pedants foaming at the mouth.

  7. Brad Shorr says:

    Hi Clare, Would you be interested in doing a guest post on my blog? Your detailed explorations of usage are absolutely wonderful. If you’d like to discuss, please email me, bradshorr AT gmail DOT com. Cheers!

  8. Helen Baker says:

    The ‘rules’ have also changed; we read from all sorts of different sources, from newspapers through to iPhones. They all have their own considerations for readability; writing for the web requires a different approach to writing for print, for example. Websites need short paragraphs!

  9. Bill Harper says:

    I like Stephen King’s “rule”: One idea per sentence, one idea per paragraph.

  10. alfian says:

    how many sentences is in 3 paragraphs???

  11. becky says:

    I can see why you do not like to follow rules since you broke so many in this blog entry. It is easier to just be lazy and do what you want. Carry On!

  12. Olivia Foght says:

    I think it should be 5-7 sentences in a paragraph

  13. Tolula says:

    I write around seven sentences per paragraph.

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