Breaking the “Writing Rules”

As a Writing Center tutor, I see a lot of writing habits that make cringe. But don’t worry, if you work with me, it is not you making me distraught. No, the issues stem from writing “rules” ingrained in students’ minds from countless high school teachers. Therefore, you may be confused— Did I learn the wrong way to write? Can I still be a strong writer? Will I ever graduate college!?

Never fear! I have the answers: No. Yes. And absolutely (calm down)! Here are three writing rules you may have been taught in high school, and what you should do instead:

Five-paragraph essay

  • Why they taught you this: Beginning writers need a place to start, so providing a five-paragraph format is easy to follow.
  • Why it is wrong: College writing tends to bring up some more complicated ideas that simply cannot be constrained to five paragraphs! When writers try to do this, paragraphs tend to become too long and ideas get jumbled.
  • What you should do instead: “But my 2-page long paragraph is all about one idea!” you say. I understand. But just because your sentences are on the same line of thinking does not mean you should write a run-on sentence! Sometimes your idea might shift just a little bit as you write— new paragraphs should indicate this slight change.

Three-pronged thesis

  • Why they taught you this: It creates an easy way to organize your three paragraphs and proves that you have reasons behind your assertion.
  • Why it is wrong: It is too simple and, again, cannot appropriately capture the complexity of your arguments.
  • What you should do instead: Really think about the bigger picture reason for the point you are making. Answer the question: “Why should my reader believe my argument?”

Three quotes per paragraph

  • Why they taught you this: Your teachers wanted to make sure that you were backing up your ideas with evidence.
  • Why it is wrong: Honestly, sometimes you only need one quote to make your point. Other times, you’ll be citing sources throughout the paragraph.
  • What you should do instead: Use quotes because they support what you’re trying to say, not to meet a quota.

I’m not trying to bash the US school system—in fact, I took two years after my sophomore year at Bentley to work in inner-city public schools. Teaching someone to write well is a daunting task, so the “rules” taught in school are more like stepping stones to better writing. Now it is time to move forward and take your writing to the next level!


About BentleyWritingCenter

This is the official blog of the Bentley University Writing Center staff.
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