Search “writing conventions,” and you will find them defined as technical rules and standards that writers must follow if they want anyone to read and understand their work. “Rules” and “must” seem like fighting words these days, but like it or not, proper writing still matters and it still depends on writing conventions.
I remember years ago (pre-web, even) hearing someone on the radio gleefully describing a doctoral dissertation in English. According to the dissertation, rules of grammar and other writing conventions no longer matter. People can communicate in writing just fine without them. After all, look at advertisements, billboards, comic books, and all kinds of other writing that would never pass an English class.
Why gleeful? The man on the radio pointed out that the author had to observe all those proper writing conventions in order to get his dissertation accepted by the graduate college.
What are conventions?
Among other things, “convention” means a kind of behavior that most people in a society consider correct or proper, a traditional method or style.
For example, it used to be that everyone wore hats whenever they went out in public. Americans, at least, no longer follow that convention, but we still follow the convention that men don’t wear skirts or carry purses.
Writing conventions don’t change as quickly as fashions. The ideas in that dissertation have trickled down into the educational establishment too much for comfort. But if schools don’t teach writing conventions as rigorously as they used to, they still teach them.
We can usefully describe them in three different ways: basic writing conventions, conventions related to specific genres of writing, and conventions for various degrees of formality.
Basic writing conventions
A few hundred years ago, no one thought anything amiss in using the same word twice in a paragraph and spelling it differently each time. Over time, English spelling has become standardized.
Nowadays, poor spelling can harm the writer. Someone who can’t spell seems ignorant, or even stupid. If two people with equal qualifications apply for a job and one’s resume is full of misspelled words, that one will wind up on the reject pile in less than 20 seconds.
Good spelling amounts to good manners. It means that writers care about communicating clearly and not making readers work extra to figure out their meaning.
Unfortunately, English spelling is ridiculous. It has numerous homonyms, words that sound the same but have different spellings and meanings. Any vowel can serve as a schwa, a neutral and unstressed sound. English also forces writers to choose between pairs of endings, such at -able/-ible or -ance/-ence without any predictable rule.
Even careful writers need to proofread carefully to make sure their fingers haven’t typed something other than what their mind meant. I have a whole series of posts about wrong choices of homonyms, which I call misused pears.
Besides the letters of the alphabet, we have numerous punctuation marks. In speech, we can stress some words more than others, pause between some words more than others, etc. We use nuances of sound to convey nuances of meaning. Since the written word has no sound, proper writing requires careful attention to punctuation.
Consider the following two sentences with identical words and different punctuation:
- Let him who steals steal no more. Let him work.
- Let him who steals steal. No more let him work.
Alas, good punctuation is no easier than good spelling. Writers who write for publication have to follow the publisher’s style manual. It might be AP, APA, CMS, MLA, or something else. Don’t worry about what all those abbreviations mean. Just know that correct punctuation according to one of them will likely be wrong according to at least one of the others.
Fortunately, none of these picky differences cause problems for readers. Only editors really care. For most ordinary purposes, we have general agreement on the basics. Like good spelling, good punctuation amounts to good matters.
Grammar has to do with sentence structure, conjugation of verbs, agreement of subjects and verbs, syntax, etc. Linguists talk about two kinds of grammar: descriptive and prescriptive.
Consider the sentence, “I ain’t going nowhere.”
Descriptive grammar notes that the subject comes first, followed by the verb, followed by the rest of the sentence. That word order describes the structure of independent clauses in the English language. Other languages use different structures.
Prescriptive grammar notes that “ain’t” is non-standard and the combination of “ain’t” and “nowhere” creates a double negative, also non-standard. The correct way to convey the same meaning is, “I’m not going anywhere.”
In other words, descriptive grammar describes how native speakers of a language actually speak and write. Prescriptive grammar prescribes how they ought to speak and write to make a good impression.
Some “rules” of prescriptive grammar can seem overly fussy. Consider the word “however,” for example. It can mean “in whatever way,” “no matter how,” or simply “but.” Some grammarians insist that “however” must not be the first word of a sentence unless it has one of the first two meanings. And all prescriptive grammarians have preferences about what punctuation to use with the various meanings.
Plenty of thoughtful, well-educated people ignore some of the fussier rules of prescriptive grammar. On the other hand, constructions such as “I ain’t going nowhere” seem uncouth and uneducated.
Writers of fiction will use “bad grammar” to show the reader something about a character’s personality or social status. Otherwise, writers who want to make a good impression on readers will follow most of the rules of prescriptive grammar. Especially if their intended audience is someone like a prospective employer.
Since before the age of printing, we have had capital letters (uppercase) and lowercase letters.
We get those terms from the old days of movable type. Printers would store their fonts in two different but connected containers. They kept capital letters in the upper of these two cases. After all, they used them less frequently. The lower case, easier to reach, held the pieces of type they needed most often.
We still use capital letters less frequently than lower case letters. And so when we type, we need to press a shift key when we need them.
And we do, of course, have rules for proper capitalization. As with everything else about writing conventions, there are some disagreements about these rules in certain cases but general agreement about most of them.
As with good spelling and punctuation, readers expect to see certain standards of capitalization Deviations can make them have to stop and think about where they are in the sentence. Non-standard capitalization, in other words, makes a piece of writing harder to read.
Have you ever seen a facsimile of anything printed in the eighteenth century? Writers back then Capitalized certain words in the Middle of a sentence where We never would, apparently to give Emphasis, although it is not always Easy to figure out a Pattern for all of it.
Have you ever seen a wall of writing with nothing indented for an entire page and never any space between lines? If so, I’ll bet you haven’t wanted to read it. When we read, we want to see paragraphs. We want to see a few sentences collected according to one central topic or theme. We also want to see the paragraphs related to each other so that ideas flow smoothly from one to the next.
All of us learned about paragraphs in elementary school. Each one had to have a topic sentence, a sentence that developed the topic, one that gave supporting evidence, and a summary sentence.
This structure usually results in a paragraph of three to five sentences. Eventually, we learned to write different kinds of sentences structures. Three to five sentences with dependent clauses, prepositional phrases, parenthetical expressions, and other additions to a simple structure can result in some very long paragraphs.
Reading anything on a computer screen is much harder on our eyes than reading in print. Hypertext makes it possible to move instantly from any page to some other page that might even exist on a different server. Both of these facts have changed the way we read. For one thing, everyone has a shorter attention span online.
Online, therefore, writers no longer have the luxury of writing paragraphs of three to five sentences. Online paragraphs ought to be no longer than five lines. Paragraphs of a single sentence, or even a single word, can greatly help move reading along.
Genre-specific writing conventions
Each different kind of writing has its own conventions.
If you’re writing a story, for example, you need a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning introduces characters, places, the setting, and the tone of the story. The end wraps everything up so the reader understands the meaning of the story. In between, a story has a conflict, climax, and resolution.
Skillful and imaginative storytellers can find all kinds of ways to avoid being too predictable, but it’s hard to imagine a successful story that neglects to introduce the basic story elements at the beginning or fails to make sense of the story by the end. Narrative writing conventions matter.
Letters, by convention, have at least the date at the top, some kind of salutation, and some kind of closing phrase before the author’s signature. Business letters identify the writer’s contact information and the name, title, and address of the addressee.
Humorous writing, persuasive writing, instructions for how to do something, etc. all have their conventions. And they all matter. Otherwise, how else is a reader to know what kind of writing to expect?
Various degrees of formality
Proper writing encompasses both formal and informal writing. Believe it or not, proper writing is not out of place in text messaging or writing on social media. Choose how formally to write based on what are writing and your intended audience.
Formal writing conventions
That English dissertation I mentioned earlier had to be submitted using all the standard conventions of proper writing. Not only that, dissertations require the conventions of formal writing. So do theses, term papers, and any other academic writing.
You also need to follow formal writing conventions if you write
- articles for a newspaper or magazine
- books (with important exceptions)
- any business, legal, or professional writing
- cover letters for job applications and similar purposes.
Descriptions of formal writing usually include the following points, although they do not necessarily insist on all of them.
Formal writing is written in third person and does not use first or second person pronouns.
It spells out words completely and does not use contractions, colloquialisms, cliches, or abbreviations. It also uses only complete and correctly constructed sentences. That is, formal writers do not use either sentence fragments or run-on sentences. They also value precision over ease of reading and therefore do not hesitate to write long and elaborate sentences.
Formal writing adopts a polite, emotionally neutral tone. It does not use imperative sentences.
For professional writing, it uses the profession’s technical vocabulary, but otherwise avoids jargon. In any case, formal writing avoids overgeneralization or any factual claim not substantiated by data or documentation.
Formal writing also uses passive voice more than does informal writing. Sometimes, passive voice will be necessary to conform to one or more of the formal writing conventions.
Following these conventions does not excuse writing boring, vague or overly complicated prose.
Formal writing is like someone giving a speech or lecture. Informal writing is more like how the speaker talks with audience members who come up after the end of the speech.
Ah! How refreshing! In this section, I can go back to using first and second person, exclamation points, and all kinds of other stuff that doesn’t fit in formal prose. You’ll never encounter phrases such as “the present author” in informal writing.
Oh, and I’ll go back to using contractions and abbreviations. In informal writing, go ahead and write meds instead of medicine, TV instead of television.
I said formal writing ought to be polite in tone. Ideally, so should informal writing. Who really enjoys someone else’s bad manners? But you don’t need to stay so emotionally neutral. Share your feelings. In fact, sensory language, which gives writing more flavor, seems much more comfortable in informal writing than formal writing.
As far as sentence structure is concerned, informal writing seldom needs long, complicated sentences. You can use a more conversational structure. Even sentence fragments.
Feel free to bend the rules of grammar a little bit in informal writing. But some of the basic writing conventions apply as much to informal writing as to formal writing. For example, don’t write run-on sentences they are very hard to read and only make unnecessary work for your reader so get some manners.
Emails, texting, and social media: do writing conventions still count?
Once upon a time, all thumbs was a scornful phrase to describe a clumsy person. Nowadays, with cell phones, all thumbs just as easily means someone who can type text messages quickly.
That doesn’t mean that someone who is all thumbs necessarily sends accurate texts. Typos seem much more forgivable in texts than in other writing.
And all kinds of text abbreviations have become writers’ BFF on Twitter and other places that require maximum information in minimum space.
Unfortunately, some people abuse the extra indulgence for carelessness. I once got an email with no capital letters and no punctuation from an assistant superintendent of schools! What do the teachers think of him if he writes that kind of slop to them?
Even on social media, proper writing conventions are technical rules and standards that writers must follow. That is, if they expect anyone to take them and their thoughts seriously.