Rules for Writing: What to Know (& When to Break the Rules)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Everybody Writes" by Ann Handley. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Which writing rules should you follow? Which ones may you break—and when should you break them?

The editing process includes applying writing “rules” to your piece, but Ann Handley emphasizes that the rules are secondary to your purpose and that you can always break the rules if it suits your piece. She does, however, list a few rules that you’d be wise to follow.

Keep reading to learn about these rules for writing.

Rules for Writing

Handley offers a wide array of rules for writing that you may follow at your own discretion. She specifies that the rules you learned in school don’t necessarily apply to writing as a brand. Sentence fragments, one-sentence paragraphs, splitting infinitives, and ending sentences in prepositions are all fair game for your writing as long as they’re used strategically and don’t interfere with the reader’s ability to understand what you’re saying.

(Shortform note: Breaking the rules of writing can be a tricky proposition. As with most rules, you must understand the rules of writing to break them well. The reason we have the rules is to make language easier to understand, so, if your rule-breaking muddles the meaning of your writing, you should correct them. However, intentional, controlled rule-breaking can add style and personality to your writing.)

Here are some specific rules for writing that Handley advises you to consider:

  • Use active voice over passive voice. Active voice refers to a sentence phrasing in which the subject of the sentence is performing—as opposed to receiving—the action. The active phrase “Clients need help” is better than the passive “Help is needed by clients.”
  • Avoid buzzwords. Buzzwords like “innovative” and “synergy” are popular in business writing but don’t add much meaning.
  • Avoid excessive jargon. Jargon, or language specific to your field, should be used in moderation and only as much as your reader can reasonably understand. Terms like “arithmetic underflow” or “smarketing” will confuse the average reader.
  • Write in the present tense and second person. Show the reader that you’re focused on them right now by avoiding past or present tense and using “you” often.
  • Make every word count. Combine weak words or phrases into stronger single words, like changing “our output went up very suddenly” to “our output spiked.”

(Shortform note: Excluding the last one, the above bullet points relate to style rather than correct or incorrect grammar and usage. Your style will vary depending on the medium and genre you’re writing. In particular, writing rules for fiction are often more flexible than other writing—tense and person, for example, will depend entirely on the author’s choice. However, rules like writing in active voice, using words your audience will understand, and making every word and sentence count will apply to most fiction writing as well as nonfiction.)

Who Came Up With the “Rules” for Writers?

Many of the “rules” for writers Handley lists are taught in schools, but they may not be as set in stone as we might think. In fact, if you trace them back to their origins, you’ll find that many of these rules developed from individuals’ critiques of the use of the English language. These critiques, however, went against the way the language was actually used. For example, the rule against splitting an infinitive came from 19th-century writer Henry Alford. He didn’t actually say it was incorrect to split an infinitive, but rather that he didn’t see any need to do it even though it was a widespread practice. 

Ending a sentence in a preposition is also commonly understood to be grammatically incorrect, but it’s actually perfectly acceptable. This misconception likely came from a few writers in the 17th and 18th centuries who wanted English grammar to match up more closely with Latin, but since English is a Germanic language and not a Romance language, they were just making up rules without a linguistic basis. 

Language rules are also constantly changing. Language rules eventually conform to how we use language, not the other way around, so if we use a word or grammatical structure enough, it becomes technically correct. Ultimately, the purpose of language is to convey meaning, so as long as you’re getting your meaning across effectively, the rules arguably don’t really matter that much.
Rules for Writing: What to Know (& When to Break the Rules)

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Here's what you'll find in our full Everybody Writes summary:

  • Why there is no such thing as a bad writer
  • A guide to improving your writing and reaching your audience
  • How to adapt your writing to different formats while maintaining your voice

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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