Don’t be a literary prude: How to write with personality
Ian Lurie Feb 9 2011
I’m reading Writing with Style by John R. Trimble. If you want to learn to write with personality, this book’s a fantastic place to start.
My favorite chapter so far is titled “Superstitions” and begins “This chapter concerns literary prudes.” In it, Trimble describes a few ‘rules’ for writing. I put rules in quotes because I’m talking about the kinds of rules that suck the life out of writing. They’re the ones that grammar school teachers throw at us to prepare us for a colorless, humorless life as a wage slave.
Trimble’s seven superstitions are:
- Never begin a sentence with But or And
- Never use contractions
- Never refer to the reader as You
- Never use I
- Never end a sentence with a preposition
- Never split an infinitive
- Never write a one-sentence paragraph
The funniest part is that we learn this in classes with names like ‘Creative Writing’.
Here is the thing: Vanilla rules mean vanilla writing. If one wishes to write with personality, then one should throw superstitions out the window. On, your groove should get.
Egads. Let’s try that again:
Here’s the thing: Vanilla rules mean vanilla writing. If you want to write with personality, throw superstitions out the window. Get your groove on!
The seven superstitions force us to write one way and talk another. They make writing hard work, and they stilt prose to the point where the best conversationalist sounds like a 19th century barrister.
The Seven Superstitions kill writing: A bit of proof
In law school, I got a C—- in legal research & writing. I’d always thought I was a decent writer, and that grade started me on a few years where I really didn’t enjoy writing. Actually, I was in law school. I didn’t enjoy anything.
I started to love writing again when I graduated and went to work in copywriting. Why? I was allowed—encouraged, even—to throw the seven superstitions out the window.
A bit of quick homework for you: Tomorrow, make sure you break every one of the seven superstitions. You don’t have to do ‘em all at once. Drop a split infinitive into an e-mail. Stick a ’but’ at the start of a sentence. Throw in a contraction here and there.
And write a one-sentence paragraph or two.
After a while, I’ll bet you’ll start to like writing again.
By the way, this would count as a way to ‘be authentic‘.
Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent Inc. He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Forbes.com and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, SIC and ad:Tech. Follow him on Twitter at portentint. He also just published a book about strategy for services businesses: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle. Read More