March 10, 2015

Skill Series: Writing Has Rules

By: Matt Mitchell

This is the third post in a series on writing. Part 1 and Part 2.


user47229_pic53091_1353277078Like it or not, there are certain rules to writing. These rules have emerged as a spontaneous order over centuries. In time, entrepreneurs have changed them. They have adapted the rules to accommodate new mediums such as email, cellphone texts, and Twitter feeds. And they have improved them, allowing obsolete phrases to die out and new and improved words and metaphors to abound (have you used “to Google” as a verb today?). But for those of you with a libertarian bent and who think that subjective value reigns and that style is a matter of taste, I have bad news: you risk being misunderstood if you do not follow the rules.

Remember, these rules emerged because they work.

I do not think it is useful for me to list all of the rules here. I can do no better than to simply direct you to what I believe to be the best source, William Strunck and E.B. White��s timeless The Elements of Style. You can find it in any bookstore. Read it. Keep it at your fingertips when you write. Then read it again every year or so.

Check your writing closely; little details like “dangling modifiers” and word choices can make a huge difference in meaning and clarity. Similar-sounding but differently spelled words can give even experienced writers trouble (if you don’t know what I am alluding to, maybe you have eluded this mistake). Sometimes, words have been misused for so long that few people even know their original meaning. Have you ever referred to the enormity of something? If you have, you were saying that the thing was monstrously wicked. Hopefully, that is what you intended to convey.

Here again, the best I can do is direct you to Strunck and White. They have a helpful chapter titled “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused.”


Matt Mitchell is a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center. This post is an excerpt from the IHS “Creating Your Path to a Policy Career” guide.