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Top Five Phony Rules of Writing
By Richard Nordquist
Grammar & Composition
Whether we're experienced writers or just beginners, we all follow certain rules. Not all rules
of writing, however, are equally valid or useful.
Before applying the principles of effective writing, we need to find out which rules are worth
taking seriously and which ones are not really rules at all. Here we'll look at five phony rules of
writing. Behind each one lies a reasonably good idea, but there are also good reasons why
these so-called rules should sometimes be broken.
1. Never use the first person pronoun ("I" or "we") in an essay.
Our choice of a personal pronoun should depend on what we are writing about and our reason
for writing. In an essay based on personal experience, for example, the I point of view is not
only natural but practically unavoidable. (Substituting "one" and "oneself" for "I" and "myself"
usually leads to awkward writing.)
On the other hand, critical essays, term papers, and lab reports are commonly presented from
the third-person point of view (he, she, it, they) because the subject of the paper, not the
writer, should be the focus of attention. (See also: first-person point of view.)
2. An essay must contain five paragraphs.
Although most essays contain a beginning, a middle, and an end (also called the introduction,
the body, and the conclusion), there's no official limit on the number of paragraphs that
should appear in an essay.
Many instructors use the five-paragraph model to introduce students to the basic structure of
an essay. Likewise, some standardized essay exams appear to encourage the simple fiveparagraph theme. But you should feel free to move beyond the basics (and beyond five
paragraphs), especially when dealing with complex subjects.
3. A paragraph must contain between three and five sentences.
Just as there's no limit to the number of paragraphs that may appear in an essay, no rule
exists regarding the number of sentences that make up a paragraph. If you check out the
works by professional writers in our Essay Samplers, you'll find paragraphs as short as a
single word and as long as two or three pages.
Instructors often encourage beginning writers to build paragraphs with at least three to five
sentences. The purpose of this advice is to help students understand that most body
paragraphs need to be developed with specific details that prove or support the main idea of a
4. Never begin a sentence with "And" or "But."
It's true that most often the conjunctions "and" and "but" are used to join words, phrases, and
clauses within a sentence. But on occasion these simple transitions can be used effectively to
show that a fresh sentence is building on a previous thought ("And") or shifting to a contrary
point of view ("But").
Because "and" and "but" are so easy to use (and to overwork) at the beginning of a sentence,
instructors often discourage students from using them there at all. But you know better.
Check out Coherence Strategies: Transitional Words and Phrases.
5. Never repeat a word or a phrase in the same paragraph.
A sound rule of writing is to avoid needless repetition. No good comes from boring our
readers. On occasion, however, repetition of a key word or phrase in a paragraph can be an
effective strategy for focusing the reader's attention on a main idea. And it's certainly better to
repeat a word than to indulge in elegant variation.
Coherent writing flows smoothly from one sentence to the next, and repeating a key word or
phrase can sometimes help us to achieve coherence.