Effective Writing Practices: More Important Than Rules

The Rules Practices of Effective Writing

Consider, for a moment, all of the grammatical and stylistic rules so often taught to children by parents, teachers, and other mentors. Too often, those rules seem disconnected from one another–an arbitrary list of do’s and dont’s for would-be writers to memorize and force upon their prose. For now, we should forget about those rules, or at least forget about them in the sense that they exist for their own sake. They serve a higher purpose: producing effective writing. That said, when those rules do not make for effective writing (and sometimes they don’t), we should bend–and even break–those rules.

With that point in mind, dear reader, I want you to move away from the idea that there are any hard-and-fast rules of writing. The “rules” exist to make the writing effective, and not because of any decree issued by some imagined circle of Grammar Gods. In the upcoming blogs, I will discuss many practices of effective writing, and I prefer to talk about practices, instead of pontificating about rules. At the end of the day, the goal of effective writing is just that–to be effective: to achieve our desired effects for the documents we write. Practices will get us there; rules will not.

Return to the analogy, mentioned in an earlier blog of the writer’s toolbox: a collection of techniques that the writer can call upon to produce effective writing (and also the inspiration behind this blog’s title). A skilled carpenter does not have a set of rules that force him to use a tool the same way for every situation. There is no rule in carpentry that says, “You must always use the back part of the hammer to extract a bent nail from the wood. If you use any other tool besides a hammer for this task, you will fail as a carpenter.”

Nonsense! The carpenter looks at the situation, and he finds the best tool for the job. What if that nail is in a spot where the carpenter cannot fit the hammer and gain leverage? Or what if the head of the nail has broken off? The carpenter then uses another tool, perhaps a strong pair of pliers, combined with some lubricating element, to remove that nail.

Writing is the same. The “rules” are just guidelines–practices. The skilled writer, like the skilled carpenter, works on a case-by-case basis, choosing the right tool for the right job. And the analogy doesn’t stop there. Just as the carpenter works with his overall goal in mind (building a sturdy but elegant table, for example),  so too does the writer keep her overall goal in mind: producing an effective document that will move her intended audience towards her perspective.

Writing, then, must begin with goals–and that just happens to be the subject of my next blog. Interested? Check it out:

The Strategy of Writing: Writing Begins with Goals

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


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