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On “Breaking the Rules”

March 30, 2010 Filed under Blog, Writing 

The more I lecture on the importance of good communication and the more I point people to what I think are good scientific communication styles, the last thing I would want would be for some people to take these recommendations too seriously.

Although I seem to offer such “rules” in my book, in my workshops, and on this Web site, there are times to break the rules. It turns out that Gopen and Swan (1990) in their important article “The Science of Scientific Writing” argue for pretty much the same thing. They offer seven principles for good communication based on what the reader expects. But, they continue, these reader-expectation principles should not be considered rules for two reasons.

First, expectations of readers go beyond these seven principles, so other factors (including the variety of individual preferences) will be involved in determining how readers interpret text.

Second, violating these principles from time to time is required. “Our best stylists turn out to be our most skillful violators,” Gopen and Swan (1990) said. “But in order to carry this off, they must fulfill expectations most of the time, causing the violations to be perceived as exceptional moments, worthy of note.”

The principles I offer are meant to provide guidance to those who need it. Following those rules more-or-less rotely will help a beginner start on the right foot.

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