Rules for writing – sensible or balm for the ego?
Plenty has been written about Jacob Rees-Mogg’s rules for writing for his staff, and I am no doubt very late to the party.
Like many before me, I have worked through his list and muttered along the lines of:
- Where did he get that from?
- Hmm, maybe
(Though not necessarily in that order.)
And then there was – yes, but not in this day and age, surely? Double spacing between sentences This is the rule was the rule back in the days when the local college taught touch typing on antiquated manual machines using the Pitman method. I always thought the double space was another of those techniques to slow down the typist and allow the keys to settle again – two thumps with the thumb on the space bar and all was well in the world again. So to my mind that rule went out with the invention of the personal computer, or even the electric typewriter. Certainly the vast majority of writers who submit stuff to me for consideration or editing are single spacers, with a handful still double-spacing, and a surprising sample who hedge their bets and use both.
Without arguing about any of the other edicts from Rees-Mogg, I would agree that laying out rules for writing and editing does make for a more cohesive mass of words. But who decides?
I was once asked, as I was a copywriter, to take on writing the newsletter for the local scout group, without being paid, obviously. Not the group to which my sons belonged, I would add, but another one with ambitions. The scout leader was a marketer in his day job, and, so I was instructed that I would need to write in his style, as if he was still producing it. This was all second hand instruction from one of his minions, I might add. Pfft to that.
But we editors do have to work to some rules or what is the point of us?
My own rules are heavily influenced by the major non-fiction publishing houses for whom I used to edit and proof books and journals. Their aim, as I understood it, was to deliver consistency, and more importantly, to ensure clarity.
So writing rules should be about making it as easy as possible for the audience to understand the message and be persuaded to buy. Just like the customer journey on the whole.
That means writing guidelines aren’t about personal preferences.
Except of course, some are. There Rees-Mogg and I agree.
Take the ampersand. I loathe it. It is ugly and lazy. And I don’t like it in any writing unless it’s being used in the name of a company.
That is entirely my personal opinion, and I totally understand why most clients ignore my suggestions to replace it with the perfectly good word ‘and’.
I’m also not happy about semi-colons, at least in business writing. If your sentence is so long you need to take that sort of break in the middle, why not just stop and start again with a new sentence? The only place I’m really content to see semi-colons in a piece of what should be straightforward content is in a list where the items are all quite long. That’s the clarity thing again.
Bizarrely, I also have issues with some numbers.
As a long-time insomniac I have spent many a night holed up in a hotel bathroom or in someone’s living room passing my waking hours with a book of Suduko puzzles. And for some reason I have come to really resent the straight-line numbers. 4 and 7 are my particular hates, but 1 isn’t far behind. Weird I know, but then prejudice often is random.
But while I might be able to set rules for words, it would be very difficult to demand everyone avoids the use of certain numbers. Although, actually, my publishing guidelines do say that numbers 1-9 (or possibly 10) should actually be spelled out as one to nine (or ten), and only move onto numerals when you reach the teens.
Some time soon I’m going to create a download with editing and proofreading guidelines as collected from publishers back in the day. I think they’ll be useful, and I’ve certainly stuck with the majority over many years to pretty well everyone’s satisfaction.
Meanwhile, if you want to implement some writing rules for a group project, take a look at my tips for creating a consistent writing style.