Learning to Break Rules

Rick Wysocki, Consultant

Recently, I was working with a client in the Writing Center who asked:

“Why does this have so many rules? I wish I could just write the way I wanted to.”

The student was talking about a specific genre of professional writing that had strict guidelines regarding language use and formatting. He was frustrated—he thought the conventions were over the top, and he didn’t enjoy writing that way.

Since then, IDSCN1627’ve been thinking about the rhetorical choices we make in our academic and professional lives—about the “rules” that we technically have the choice to accept or deny but which have strong institutional pressure behind them. During my session with that student, I said something along the lines of, “Well, yes, there are a lot of rules, but your audience expects you to follow them.” I’d like to expand that response, and talk a bit about how we interact with these conventions masquerading as rules.

First, it’s true that some conventions do have an incredible amount of institutional backing. If you turn in a paper to your biology instructor containing so-called “colloquial” language referring to “little molecular dudes,” you might get points taken off your essay (I’m never letting that go Mrs. Hull). On the other hand, if you write a literacy narrative for your composition course completely avoiding first person, your teacher hopefully wouldn’t lower your grade, but might ask you to rewrite it in a more personal voice. Keep in mind that these conventions don’t always come from outside—I, for example, neurotically add a references page to every document I write that cites sources, regardless of whether it’s required or asked for.

That said, the guy in my head who still loves punk music, even though he’s now a fully functioning cog in the academic, cite-your-sources-or-else machine, is still annoyed by your rules, man. Both he, and the client mentioned above, are completely justified in feeling this way. We’re told constantly that writing is about expression, and with all these conventions writing can sometimes seem like somewhat of a bummer. I’d like to offer a little advice I find helpful in dealing with these situations.

  1. Know the rules. Seriously, get to know what’s expected of you in the writing contexts you’re engaged in. If you’re in your biology class there’s no shame in asking the teacher about the genre of science writing, checking the library for sources on the topic, or coming into the Writing Center for help. Even though conventions can be frustrating, you still need to learn them—especially if you’re planning on breaking them. Which leads me to—
  2. Don’t break conventions for no reason. If you’re annoyed about having to go to the trouble of doing APA format and, in response, just do the whole paper in MLA, that a) doesn’t make any sense and b) deprives you of learning a new skill.
  3. If you want to break rules, know why. When you’re consciously going against the conventions (that you learned in step 1), of your writing context, imagine explaining to your instructor why you did so. Better yet, go talk to your instructor about the assignment. Making your case early on let’s you at least find out what the consequences might be of, say, writing in third person instead of first. Keep in mind that your instructor may disagree with you—in that case, you have to weigh whether or not third person is worth having to rewrite your paper or getting a reduced grade.

What I’m trying to stress is the importance of breaking rules consciously, and with the appropriate information about the rules themselves. Put simply, it’s only cool to break the rules if you know you’re doing it. So learn those generic conventions. If you need help, the Writing Center’s here for you.

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