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

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[This entry originally appeared on Clare Lynch’s blog, goodcopybadcopy]

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.

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