Consider yourself lucky if a parent or instructor tried to teach you how to write as a kid. And twice lucky if you’ve completely forgotten most of the writing conventions they taught you. Because a lot of those conventions are terrible. Many others have been rendered obsolete by changes in telecommunications, media and people’s attention spans.
When I taught college students ages ago, I had to do heaps of remedial work to make them write above chimp level. And I was teaching at one of the top private colleges in the United States. Much of the catastrophic quality of writing was directly due to what students had been taught in “school”.
Later on, I was privileged to work with professional writers whose work was nothing short of stellar. The few things that I would have to edit out were often related to the same moronic writing conventions. Which they had picked up from school or loiq newspapers.
Some writing conventions are so bad that they effectively ruin what would otherwise be high-quality work of substantial practical and persuasive value. Surely, there are many more that you should avoid. This is a quick dozen from among the worst.
To reiterate, these are commonly promoted conventions which you should NOT follow. If you want to write like a boss, you should ignore them or do the exact opposite.
1. Topic sentences and obligatory introductions
They come in many forms, sometimes in the form of introductions to books or articles, other times as topic sentences in paragraphs.
Understand this, and understand it well.
The only good writing is poignant writing. Readers don’t have time for fluff. And that’s exactly what topic sentences are. This was true before people got the attention spans of sparrows. If you don’t grab people immediately, assume that you have lost them. Respect your readers’ time or you will be disposed as garbage.
The best introduction to a topic is not to beat around the bush. Let readers have a taste of the real deal, not a bland appetizer.
Writing is worse than the restaurant business. It’s not just that people don’t have to read what you write. They don’t have to read anything at all if they don’t want to.
It’s acceptable to have an introduction with certain types of long-form writing. The critical test is that it must have a clear function. What is your introduction meant to accomplish and does it get there?
2. Forced summaries and conclusions
That you should always have a clear-cut summary conclusion is another bit of garbage your kids are likely being taught at school, and you probably were too. It is manifestly the exception and not the rule that you need anything that looks like a conclusion (and this is beside people’s being rubbish at writing conclusions).
What are people most likely to remember or refer to from your writing? The beginning and the end.
A bland ending is worse than a canned introduction because the reader has probably already invested the time to read through. Your ending must leave the reader mind ablaze and craving more. Instead of recapping and parroting platitudes, leave the reader hanging. At the edge of a cliff or the summit of a mountain, and wanting to go higher. This applies to any type of writing – from technical documents to film noir screenplays.
Something that won’t seem self-evident to you at first: the best, most powerful writing does NOT follow a linear path or progression. Both because worthwhile subjects don’t typically allow for linearity and because it is more effective that way, not less. The best writing makes you want to go back and reread passages after you reach the ending.
For example, you can wrap up a forensic analysis of someone’s financials with a bullet list or such like of the key outtakes. But when you’re good, this won’t make readers stop reading. It would make them go back and look for those points in different parts of the text because of their poignancy. The idea of a hungry ending isn’t to obfuscate, but to make what matters stand out in a visceral way.
3. Small talk
Being able to do small talk is a valuable asset, but there is virtually no place for it in your writing. The worst place to do small talk is your business correspondence and yet that’s exactly where you can see it most frequently in writing.
Remove everything that is immediately obvious to a non-retard.
“I’m writing to you regarding…”
Yes, you are writing. It’s a fracking email.
“I hope you’re doing well.”
Wow, and people thought you were hoping they get hit by an ice-cream truck.
“I was impressed by your…”
And anyone should care about your opinion why?
If you need to insert any background information in your emails, leave it for – drumroll! – the background. Open directly with your point. This shows confidence and respect for people’s time. Those worth doing business with will appreciate it. You will also sound different from the vast majority of weak, dithering, mumbling emailers flooding the inbox.
In fiction, small talk still has to be revealing of something substantial – such that the character does small talk and follows convention. You can use it with great subtlety. Just don’t do small talk for the sake of making a conversation “realistic”. People don’t read your fiction books because they’re realistic, they read fiction because it is NOTreality.