Style rules for good writing will make your writing worse

Code won't solve your communication problems

One thing I am constantly struggling to achieve in this newsletter is how to give actionable advice without prescribing rules. I don't believe in rules applied to communication. There are short-lived context-dependent best practices at most, but not rules.

The rules I am talking about are the ones that try to directly interfere with the words you are writing rather the way you think about your writing. Commands like: do not use adverbs, do not write long sentences, use only active voice. Shallow advice that just gets attention because they are readily applicable without further thought. They are also algorithmables*.

The framework I created for writing is about what to think about while writing and not a list of rules for the sentences and words you should use. This is because writing is about communication and communication is not subject to rigid rules. Even grammar books and dictionaries are not the law. They are ever-evolving documentation of the accepted consensus of particular uses and structures of the words.

I use Grammarly, a great tool for some automatized proof-reading, checking for typos, grammatical errors and bad punctuation. Its paid version also gives recommendations for better writing based on some algorithmable rules. These recommendations are useful as they make me re-read my writing and improve it. But I seldom follow its suggestions.

Software developers are used to standards and rules framing their work. It makes sense that simplifying the process of writing would appeal to us. Apps like Grammarly and Hemmingway are popular. You write something; a machine corrects it; you feel good because a code told you did good writing.

I think those apps are a diversion that does not improve your writing at all. Acting as a useful linter, sure. Improving your writing, no. I am not entirely confident that my own choices are always better than its coded rules, but I am sure that taking my chances will result in better writing when compared to blindly obeying them.

The actionable advice in this email is to not care about "good-writing rules". They are completely irrelevant. Occupy your mind with your reader instead of memorized rules. Check the result by getting feedback from your readers instead of passing the criteria of coded algorithms.

*Algorithmable is a word that I thought I had just invented but already has 749 results in Google. Although not used with this meaning of something that allows itself to be coded into an algorithm. So maybe someday a dictionary will document the meaning I gave it.