Writing Rules! The Rules of Writing?

William Safire had a way with words and a way with the American(ish) English language. He wrote speeches for the American President Richard Nixon, which I won’t comment on, but the columns he wrote for the New York Times on language and word usage and grammar were wonderful examples of exceptionally good and thoughtful writing.

Today some of the rules might sound a bit outdated and old-fashioned: our language has evolved and so has our writing. But some of the rules are timeless and dare I say, commonsensical. I break some of these rules frequently in my work and I do so intentionally. When it’s not intentional it’s because I missed it on editing and have been sloppy, although I might point out I didn’t learn grammar or writing rules until I went to college, because grammar and writing rules weren’t considered important in the school system here in Toronto. That experience of learning grammar in college was one push up a steep razor of a learning curve. Grammar is not an instinct and my first drafts always, always show it.

Incidentally, the best time to teach kids about grammar is around eight years old, when our developing brain wants rules and order and organization. Next time you have the chance, listen to eight-year olds play. “No, THIS is how you have to do it!”

Safire’s point was that breaking certain rules amounted to a writing fumble in front of a reader. And who wants to do that?

The Rules of Writing according to William Safire

  1. Remember to never split an infinitive.
  2. A preposition is something never to end a sentence with.
  3. The passive voice should never be used.
  4. Avoid run-on sentences they are hard to read.
  5. Don’t use no double negatives.
  6. Use the semicolon properly, always use it where it is appropriate; and never where it isn’t.
  7. Reserve the apostrophe for it’s proper use and omit it when its not needed.
  8. Do not put statements in the negative form.
  9. Verbs have to agree with their subjects.
  10. No sentence fragments.
  11. Proofread carefully to see if you words out.
  12. Avoid commas, that are not necessary.
  13. If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
  14. A writer must not shift your point of view.
  15. Eschew dialect, irregardless.
  16. And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
  17. Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!!
  18. Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
  19. Hyphenate between syllables and avoid un-necessary hyphens.
  20. Write all adverbial forms correct.
  21. Don’t use contractions in formal writing.
  22. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
  23. It is incumbent on us to avoid archaisms.
  24. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
  25. Steer clear of incorrect forms of verbs that have snuck in the language.
  26. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
  27. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
  28. Never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
  29. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
  30. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, resist hyperbole.
  31. Also, avoid awkward or affected alliteration.
  32. Don’t string too many prepositional phrases together unless you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
  33. Always pick on the correct idiom.
  34. “Avoid overuse of ‘quotation “marks.”’”
  35. The adverb always follows the verb.
  36. Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; They’re old hat; seek viable alternatives.
  37. Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
  38. Employ the vernacular.
  39. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
  40. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
  41. Contractions aren’t necessary.
  42. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
  43. One should never generalize.
  44. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
  45. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
  46. Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.
  47. Be more or less specific.
  48. Understatement is always best.
  49. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
  50. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
  51. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
  52. Who needs rhetorical questions?
  53. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
  54. capitalize every sentence and remember always end it with a point


About FS

Toronto, Canada. Writing about slices of life, the moments and minor details of which come into awareness or out of imagination and the spaces inbetween.
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2 Responses to Writing Rules! The Rules of Writing?

  1. Katy says:

    This is a very good list! Great post.

    • fs says:

      Dear STN: Thank you.. I liked it too. There’s just something about the simplicity of well-written lists; a simplicity that has an impact, that stops people so that they can take the information in and do something with it, even if it’s just have a little chuckle. I confess to having a weakness for sharp minds sharpened by writing in any genre: Safire was one of them. 🙂

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