Writers: Rules of Thumb Are Meant to Be Broken

by Mar 19, 2013Composition

Over and over, I see content professionals mock the old English teacher’s rule of thumb about not using the same word twice on the same page. I want to scream at my screen: “You’re both WRONG!” Those teachers, I gather, explained this rule as a way to give “color” or “interest” to your writing. It is not. The content professionals assert that readers have an easier time with consistent terminology. However, consistency can’t trump meaning. It goes back to audience and purpose. Say your company sells dog food. Switching from “dog” to “pet” to “canine” to “pup” to “mutt” on a catalog page is likely to feel more forced than colorful, is not search engine friendly, and adds no meaning. Teacher: 0. Content pro: 1. Now imagine you are writing (for the company’s blog) a personal essay about your evolving relationship with the stray dog your son found in the backyard and convinced you to keep. The animal enters the story as a “mangy cur.” You realize she’s “just a puppy.” You accept her as a “canine family member.” Finally she earns a place in your bed — “man’s best friend.” Now suppose, in addition, that the strategy of the piece involves using a narrator who remains unaware of the gradual shift in his feelings; the changing words clue the reader into what’s happening. Teacher: 1. Content pro: 0. You can take writing out of artistic contexts. You can’t take the art entirely out of writing.
Barbara Ruth Saunders is a writer, editor, and writing coach.