Beware of rules: Dilbert’s Scott Adams’ included

A short piece of writing advice by Dilbert creator Scott Adams is currently doing the rounds. It was written almost ten years ago, reprised by social media, and re-released by the man himself.

I’ll pause here while you go away and read it. It’s only 250 words or so …

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Good general advice, right? And well written too. Like you, I found myself nodding in agreement. Then, after a little consideration, going, “Well, yes and no …”

Why? Because – like a lot of writing advice and many of the so-called writing “rules” – it’s not universally applicable.

Consider this opening sentence, for example:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

Sixty words to say our protagonist arrived? Ridiculous! Surely:

I arrived at the House of Usher.

Or even:

After a miserable day on horseback, I arrived at the melancholy House of Usher.

But neither really work, do they? Not compared to Edgar Allan Poe’s original.

The interesting question is, why?

While I agree that many business documents, technical documents and textbooks suffer from word bloat and a lack of clarity, I don’t just read that sort of material. I also read fiction, and when I read fiction, I look to be transported to other worlds. Poe’s opening sentence does that for me. (So much so that I went back again and reread the story again.)

So rules are good, but they’re made to be broken. Remember: context is the key.

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