On writer autonomy (when ‘real’ writers break the rules)

When ‘real’ writers break the rules

Many writing guides provide detailed instructions on how to write a paragraph. But the instructions are misguided, because there is no such thing as a paragraph. That is, there is no item in an outline, no branch in a tree, no unit of discourse that consistently corresponds to a block of text delimitated by a blank line or an indentation. What does exist is the paragraph break: a visual bookmark that allows the reader to pause, to take a breather, assimilate what he has heard, and then find his place again on the page. (Pinker, 2014, p.145)

Dessin_de_Grau_pour_JD_de_mode_partrue_dans_le_journal_hollandaisAdvice on how to write academically abounds, especially when it comes to style, and we all have writing pet favourites, sources we turn to for composition guidance. If we read too much advice, though, we soon start to see that it can conflict, so generally we choose one writing guru, and stick with him/her.

Sometimes, this advice verges on the prescriptive, mainly because it needs to be assertive rather than reflexive, and because we need quick fixes to our ‘numb de plume‘ (aka writer’s block) so that we can get back to our manuscripts or so that we can teach.

The advice I am thinking of includes such rules/guidelines as: paragraphs must contain around 5 to 6 sentences; they must be signalled by a clear topic; they need to wrap-up in order to pave the way for the next paragraph. Or: avoid brackets and footnotes because if what you are saying is important, it needs to be prominent, not hidden behind bars or relegated to solitary confinement; in other words, if it’s not important, don’t write it. However, not everyone in academia agrees with such rules…

The footnote is ‘the humanist’s rough equivalent of the scientist’s report on data’ and other reasons to appreciate it

I confess to finding all this advice confusing, both as a student who has to write academically, and as a teacher who has to teach this stuff, because I don’t always see it happen in practice. Maybe I’m exaggerating. It’s not that it is ‘confusing’ – I get a) why this advice exists (e.g. widening participation has opened the doors to academic discourse for many people who have not been brought up on a (Western) diet of academic writing/composition); and b) why it is like it is (e.g. readership has also widened but the time to actually read/concentrate has shrunk, ergo, everything needs to be signalled and standardised so that busy assessors, reviewers and editors don’t get lost in unwieldy and complex ideas written in non-standard forms).

Nevertheless, I also confess that I prefer a process approach to teaching writing rather than a prescriptive one (so I tend to favour the Susan Feez / Hallidayian approach to genre, for example, which looks back on what has emerged from text exploration, as opposed to a more Swalesian approach which tends to anticipate what writing will look like): this means that I like to explore with students what writers actually do, what choices they make and why, and then negotiate what we, the students, want our writing to look like, and why.

Here are the two examples from my own research readings that have triggered this post. They show how ‘real’ writers break the rules (I’m sorry they are out focus: I will try and sort this later, but it is not the content I am drawing attention to, it is the fact that they break the rules of paragraph advice and of how we use brackets – there are references at the end).

This is from Uzuner, p. 256 (EAP): SEE YELLOW HIGHLIGHT


What I notice here (yellow highlight), is a one-sentence paragraph (if it still counts as a paragraph). Why does she do it? It must have been deemed ‘academic’ or else the Journal of English for Academic Purposes would never have published it. Yet it breaks the very rules that EAP is fond of!

And this is from Skow, p. 447 (philosophy of science): SEE BRACKETS in YELLOW HIGHLIGHTS:


What I notice here is an entire paragraph (a huge one at that) which is entirely bracketed. Why does he do that? Whose writing advice has he followed!?

My answers to why these writers have chosen to ‘break the rules’ is that their academic writing reflects/represents/embodies (I still don’t know how to say this) their academic thinking. They shape or mould their writing to provide a window into their reasoning. In turn, the writing shapes the knowledge they are communicating (Bazerman) so that it is received by the reader in a certain way.

In Uzuner’s case, it was a brief, independent concluding thought that needed its own paragraph space: the one-sentence paragraph thus becomes the shape (the embodiment?) of that brief thought.

In Skow’s case, it was an axiomatic thought, one that needed to be established early on in order for the rest of his argument to be founded on a premise (i.e. his definition of an ‘event’), but one that does not recur: it’s as if he is telling us “ok, let’s just get this out of the way now so that we don’t have to keep coming back to it; and let’s not dwell on it hugely”. His long bracket paragraph becomes the shape of this thinking: long, important, anxiomatic, but essentially not the main focus of his paper.

As always, please share any reactions to this …


  • Uzuner, S. (2008). Multilingual scholars’ participation in core/global academic communities: A literature review. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 7, 250 -263.
  • http://bjps.oxfordjournals.org/content/65/3/445.full.pdf (philosophy of science)
  • http://wac.colostate.edu/books/bazerman_shaping/shaping.pdf
  • Pinker, S. (2014). The sense of style : the thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century. UK: Penguin Random House.
  • And this, from The Guardian on paragraphs: https://www.theguardian.com/media/mind-your-language/2015/may/22/breaking-point-is-the-writing-on-the-wall-for-the-paragraph

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