Some Grammar Rules From School Writers Should Start Breaking Immediately

Dawn Bevier

Depending on the publication they're writing for, professional writers may have to let go of "old school" notions of good writing

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I’ve taught writing for over 20 years and only in the last two have I branched out to write for “real world” publications. And let me tell you, learning to write for these publications was like taking out over two decades of trash. I kept about half of the “good stuff” I learned about the writing process and tossed out the other half in disbelief and tears.

So if you’ve got your favorite English teacher on speed dial to proof that new article you’ve been wanting to submit, you’re doing yourself more of a disservice than you know.

Why?

As a teacher, the writing instruction I give my students in class is often the very opposite of what they need to be successful if they choose to make writing a career. For example, when I sent out my very first written article to an online publication, I immediately got accepted. Because of that wonderful victory, I considered myself quite the writing goddess. What I didn’t realize at the time was the editors didn’t think my writing was good, they thought my ideas were.

Now I’m sure they appreciated my finely-proofed article with almost zero grammatical errors. I’m also sure they found my abundantly descriptive imagery and metaphors intriguing, but the truth is they told me to chunk about two-thirds of the sentences I wrote and almost all of the poetic language I spent hours trying to perfect for them. Needless to say, I was shocked and disheartened.

However, I was also eager to learn, and I am forever thankful they took the time to strip away my outdated writer’s “outfit” and fashion me in attire much more becoming for today’s writing market.

So if you haven’t learned the real truths of the writing world and are relying on your handy dandy grammar book or favorite English professor’s words of wisdom, let me give you a few words of advice.

1. Ditch the Long Paragraphs

Over my years of teaching, I have seen the supposedly acceptable length of a paragraph grow from five sentences in elementary school to seven to ten sentences in high school. I preached this wisdom myself until I began to write for publications.

Editor after editor told me to separate my ideas into shorter paragraphs. They called it creating more “white space,” a concept which at the time was completely foreign to me.

They told me that looking at long paragraphs fatigues the reader. And when they said this, I silently cursed myself for not realizing this truth earlier. After all, over the years I had heard at least a million and one sighs as I presented the writings of Emerson, Tolstoy, or Thoreau to my students.

These editors also told me many times even a first glance at sentence-heavy paragraphs turned the reader off. They explained to me that readers usually didn’t start reading and get tired; instead, they looked at the text and turned away because that one look had already made them tired.

Now when I start to read an article on a topic I am interested in, if the writer’s paragraphs wind along like a never-ending river, I metacognitively understand the truth of their words.

So keep it simple.

  • Find subtle shifts in ideas and separate them into new paragraphs
  • Separate examples from the narrative of your text
  • Turn a list of something into bullet points instead of writing them in paragraph form
  • When your ideas transition, create a short two to three paragraph to break up the text

2. Ditch the Long Sentences

It seems the modern reader is either completely exhausted or has a hopelessly short attention span because the second lesson I learned from editors was to create shorter sentences. If you take a glance at my writing, this is still not a skill I have mastered.

This is not to say that compound or compound-complex sentences should be thrown away like yesterday’s garbage, but use them as a side dish rather than the main entree.

And when you do use them, follow them with short sentences. Write sentences with five words. Or maybe three. This creates an intriguing melody for the reader.

3. Fragments Are Your Friend

Now, I must warn you about this piece of advice. Not all publications subscribe to this form of grammar rebellion.

However, publications whose emphasis is on publishing personal essays and narratives often think articles are more provocative if they are written in a conversational manner. For example, think of conversations with friends. Do you speak in complete sentences? Absolutely not. There are natural breaks in our thoughts. There are times we add exceptions or additions to the ideas we express.

For example, suppose you are talking to a friend about your new job. You don’t say, “They have a great working space and my office is amazing. They also have lots of hot guys there.”

You say, “My office is amazing! And everything looks new. Oh, yeah, and the men? Unbelievably hot.”

Do you see the difference?

Truly, the only real sentence is the first one. The rest are those fragments that your professor docked you double-digit points for on your college essays.

The benefit of writing in such a manner replicates the conversation and communication we engage in daily. It’s comforting. Natural.

Not only that, by using these fragments you create a voice inside your readers’ heads. What is that voice you create? Yours. A voice that sounds like the coworkers they love to gossip with or the friends who try and make them feel better when they’ve had a long day.

These are the voices that are real. That speak to us as if we were right there. Together. Like two friends talking about life over coffee and a Danish.

This is what many readers want. They want to see you as one of them, not one of those stuffy professors who carefully crafts each spoken word so that you see them as an academic rather than a real person.

So break the rules. However, as with all the other strategies, there must be a careful balance of well-written sentences and conversational techniques.

For example, publications whose focus is on political information, academic writing, and journalistic reporting will not enjoy your creative use of these conversational strategies. They’ll hang you for it.

So it’s best to know those old stodgy grammar rules so that you can be more versatile as a writer. Also, you want to do this so that your readers know you can write masterfully; otherwise, they may mistake your intended conversational tone as an indication of ignorance.

4. Forget the Rule About Never Ending a Sentence With a Preposition

I cannot tell you the number of times fellow writers have noted these types of sentences for me to correct when the truth is that I wrote those exact sentences on purpose. The reason? This strategy also adds to the formation of a conversational tone.

Here are a couple of examples to show you want I mean.

When you talk to a lover who is dissatisfied with your relationship, you don’t say, “What changes are there on which you would like to me to work?” You say, “Tell me what I need to work on.”

Even when you talk to a superior such as your boss, you don’t say, “There’s a matter about which we need to speak.” You say, “There’s something we need to talk about.”

Once again, it’s natural. It flows. It doesn’t sound stilted or arrogant. And the last thing you want a reader to think of you is that you are self-righteous.

Why?

Because they can’t relate to you as a real person, an individual who could possibly understand their blue-collar problems or empathize with their middle incomes woes. And when a reader feels inferior or unlikely to get your support or empathy? Sayonara. Adios. Sorry I didn’t finish reading, but I have to go home and wash my dog.

A point to keep in mind:

As I mentioned before, those publications that are more scholarly or scientific want the grammar book. They want, “Studies indicate that they are many concerns on which scientists should be focused,” as opposed to, “Studies say there are more areas to focus on.”

This is because their goal is not to create a relationship with their readers. It is to convince an audience of academics that their writers are well-educated and credible enough for their ideas to be considered, accepted, and implemented.

5. Forget the Rule of Never Addressing Your Audience

Ask me how many times I have told a student not to use the pronoun “you” except in persuasive speeches? No, don’t ask. I can’t count that high.

The reason most English teachers teach this rule is it shows informality in writing. And the goal of an academic paper is to state the facts in a sophisticated manner, give excellent examples and statistics to back up one’s points, and then exit the building. No bonding needed. No conversation either.

And if you’ve been a good student of the instructions in my article, you already know the answer as to why to break this rule, don’t you?

It creates a barrier that makes it impossible to bond with your reader.

Think about a friend who won’t let you get a word in edgewise or who talks only about themselves and never asks how you feel.

They seem pretty selfish, don’t they? And this is the impression you give off to your reader when you talk at them instead of to them.

Yes, I know that readers can’t answer you when you pose questions to them in an article, but in a way, your attempt to create a dialogue with them instead of presenting a pre-rehearsed monologue makes them feel valued. Considered. Important.

And my writing comrades, the rule of making a reader feel important and understood is one you should never ever break. Never. No hyperbole intended.

The Bottom Line:

The Indian mystic Osho said, “Creativity is the greatest rebellion in existence.” And what wonderful examples of literature and art would be missing from the world if everyone agreed to be good boys and girls and always follow the rules?

I’ll answer this one: a heck of a lot of them.

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Sanford, NC
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