Conventions in Writing - Exploring the Issue

  • Oct 29, 2018
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Imagine reading two books on Physics and Biology, written by two different authors. After a while, you start experiencing a slight discomfort, and not because you do not understand the topic (of course, you will find some concepts or ideas tough to grasp), but because of misspelled words and poor punctuation (missing commas, periods, colons, etc.).

You can't help wondering whether you are reading a draft or manuscript of the books because mistakes in such large numbers are just impossible in an already published book! The moral of this simple hypothetical example is that by observing writing conventions, you make things a lot easier for the readers of your book. If you can detect the above errors, you have most likely read similar books or studied English thoroughly enough to know that something is not quite right with these two books. Even in high school, you got taught how to use proper punctuation, how to structure sentences correctly, and how to pick the right words for your sentences.

Putting it differently, you should know perfectly well what the subject, predicate, object, verb, auxiliary verb, adjective, adverb, pronoun, and noun are and how they relate to one another. If you do, observing standard rules (or generally acceptable ways of usage) and applying them to the above parts of speech shouldn't be much of a problem to you because that is precisely what grammar conventions are all about. If every reader were to deal with the issues referred to in the above example on a daily basis, reading books would inevitably become a real nightmare for them. They would read a lot less if such error-riddled books were the only thing left in this world. Fortunately, that is not the case nowadays, and we owe the fact to conventions in writing that prevent us from sliding into the abyss of illiteracy.

What are Conventions in Writing?

By now, you should have at least a rough idea of what writing conventions are meant for. So, let's take it one step further and try and explore conventions in writing in greater detail. As mentioned earlier, every writer composing in English should be mindful of the expectations of their target audience regarding the use of standard English conventions. Those relate to both oral use of the language and its expression through writing. In other words, we have to pay attention to the peculiarities and nuances of speaking and writing in English.

However, since the main focus of this article is on writing conventions, let's get down to their definition: writing conventions is a set of generally agreed upon rules, styles, approaches, or techniques that are to be applied to different aspects of writing. The main goal of having a common set of guidelines is to make it easy for the readers to understand what is being conveyed in written form. You can think of it as a sort of 'common language' which prevents people from spending too much time on trying to figure out the writer's main idea. The two main aspects of English conventions under which other conventions can be grouped are referred to as Mechanics and Usage.

Mechanics

Mechanics is a broad set of rules and guidelines that are widely used in written language. If you ever find yourself wondering whether or not you should add a comma after a specific word, use a hyphen instead of a colon, or capitalize the first letter after a semicolon, then it'll mean that you're dealing with questions that fall into the category of writing mechanics. Mechanics of writing can be divided into the following groups:

  • Spelling.
    By this, we mean the correct way of writing a word which enables the writer to convey the intended meaning to the reader (actually, this is the crucial role of mechanics). Imagine reading a sentence which is replete with misspelled words - most likely, you won't have any problems understanding it, but you will definitely be annoyed by a large number of spelling errors. There are people, though, who may not take this issue seriously enough until it costs them job opportunities due to the frequent misspelling of words in their resumes or CVs.
  • Punctuation.
    This is arguably the trickiest and most confusing part of mechanics. Quite a few people, including native speakers, often make punctuation mistakes. It's hardly surprising, since, unlike speaking, fluency of which can be picked up naturally from early years, punctuation is an acquired skill. As such, it can only be mastered through active learning (formal or informal) and writing practice. Some people may not even have a clue about the existence of certain punctuation marks, let alone use them properly. There are more than 10 punctuation marks in written English, such as:
    1. The period aka the full stop or point (.).
    2. The comma (,).
    3. The semicolon (;).
    4. The colon (:).
    5. The apostrophe (').
    6. The quotation marks (opening and closing) (")(").
    7. The exclamation point (!).
    8. The question mark (?).
    9. The ellipsis (...).
    10. The hyphen (-).
    11. The n-dash (-).
    12. The m-dash (-).
    13. The parentheses or round brackets (opening and closing) ( ).
    14. The braces or curly brackets (opening and closing) { }.
    15. The block or square brackets (opening and closing) [ ].

    The 2 most commonly used punctuation marks are arguably the period and comma. It is, therefore, essential to know what each of the above punctuation marks means and how they should be used. The rules may vary depending on a country (e.g., the US vs. the UK) or organization and be either less or more stringent. An educational institution or media organization may have its own punctuation guide, meticulously prescribing how and when to use each of the punctuation marks. However, no matter what style or approach is chosen, the emphasis is always on consistency, which is the only way to ensure uniformity. This in itself is one of the main reasons for having conventions.
  • Capitalization.
    Governing the use of capital letters (also known as uppercase letters), the rules of capitalization explain when the first letter in words should be in upper case. By far, the most popular capitalization rule is that all sentences should begin with a capital letter or, in other words, that the first letter of the initial word in a sentence should be in upper case. Want an example? Well, take a look at the very first word of this sentence - pretty self-evident, isn't it? Unfortunately, some people still fail to abide by this simple rule, preferring to write (or type) without using capital letters.
    Another capitalization rule states that proper nouns such as names of people (e.g. Thomas, Gary, Peter, Tracy, etc.), places (country, state, city, town, village, etc.), companies or brands (Google, Microsoft, Sony, Alibaba, McDonalds, Playstation, Big Mac, Xbox, Windows 10, etc.) should be capitalized regardless of their place in the sentence. An interesting exception to this rule is when a proper name is deliberately written in lower case for stylization purposes, as is the case with famous brands, such as Apple's iPhone.
    Another popular capitalization rule requires us to use capital letters in abbreviations, e.g., NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), the IMF (the International Monetary Fund), AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), the WTO (the World Trade Organization), etc. The important thing to remember here, though, is that such capitalized abbreviations stay unchanged irrespective of where they are used in a sentence. Given that we are living in the era of advanced technology, it would be worthwhile to add that in digital communication the capitalizing words is often a way of emphasizing a point or describing intense emotions, e.g., shouting (providing all letters are capitalized).

Being closely connected to mechanics, grammar is one of the most critical aspects of any natural language. Grammar explores different constituent parts of a language, as well as ways in which they are combined to correctly convey meaning. The list of parts of speech in English grammar (or, for that matter, in any grammar) includes nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, interjections, and conjunctions. It also covers phrases and clauses, as well as word choice and suitability in conveying ideas. It goes without saying that mastering mechanics of writing in any language requires a sound knowledge of grammar. Though the words 'grammar' and 'mechanics' are often used together as collocations, they are not the same and, therefore, should not be used interchangeably. It's actually quite easy to see the difference between them if we consider the following explanation: grammar applies to the natural language (both in written and spoken forms), whereas mechanics only applies to the written form of the natural language.

Usage

Unlike mechanics, which applies only to writing, this is a much broader aspect of language conventions. It concerns both written and verbal forms of expression. Just as the word suggests, usage refers to how words are chosen and used for communicating ideas in statements or sentences. And since we are on the subject, it would be useful to quickly draw a comparison between the two. The statement is a logical entity containing information that can be either true or false (valid or invalid) in spoken or written form, while the sentence is a combination of adequately arranged written words (including the subject and predicate), conveying a complete meaning, question, or statement. The sentence can either be ridiculously simple, e.g. 'I love you', or insanely complex, e.g. 'Had he paid heed to my advice and not disregarded my misgivings about his first-choice candidate, today he would still be in a position to advance the same causes he had sought to realize by running for governor'.

The main difference is that the statement contains a claim which can either be true or false, while the sentence may or may not have one. Also, the statement can be in written or verbal form, and if the former is the case, it is invariably expressed in a sentence. In other words, the sentence can contain a statement, but the statement is always a sentence.

Usage implies such notions as grammar, vocabulary, and word choice in a given context. When learning to use words in informal speech, students may have a much easier time mastering them, but when it comes to the mechanics of writing, it can get much more demanding.

One major challenge in spoken communication is the appropriateness of words or lack thereof within the context of what is said. A possible way of tackling this problem consists in expanding your vocabulary on a regular basis and practicing new words according to their dictionary definitions or as per their use in movies, news broadcasts, documentaries, etc.

Conventions of Academic Writing

If you have read this far, you should have a pretty good idea what writing conventions are all about. However, in addition to adhering to the general or standard conventions of writing in English, students should also pay attention to conventions in academic writing.

Academic writing involves different kinds of works, such as research papers, response papers, critical analysis (or close reading assignment), case study analysis and other essay types, all of which are academic in nature. Using conventions when doing academic writing is essential, especially at college or postgraduate levels where requirements put on students are much tougher. Even university or college professors, who regularly write their own papers or articles for submission to scientific journals, are expected to adhere to their conventions. Failure to do so can easily be the reason for the journals' editors to reject the submitted paper. This is especially true of popular and widely read journals, which are reputed for their consistency in publishing high-quality papers dealing with the latest advances in various fields of science and technology. The simple point here is that using an academic style requires not only knowing what you want to write about but also complying with the generally accepted standards of writing.

Some important qualities and conventions of good academic writing are:

  • Formality.
    Most, if not all, academic papers are to be written in a formal style, which has the advantage of projecting the intellectual sophistication expected at university or college level. In the practical sense, this can be achieved by using formal words, such as:
    • 'demonstrate' (as opposed to 'show');
    • 'contradict' (as opposed to 'deny');
    • 'concur' (as opposed to 'agree');
    • 'however' (as opposed to 'but'), etc.
    These are but a few examples of formal words (many more can be used depending on a discipline or topic), but the key clue here is to employ those of them that are rarely used in informal or colloquial communication but which nonetheless convey the writer's message. One way of easily familiarizing yourself with such words (and improving your formal writing style) lies in reading similar papers or materials on a regular basis, paying attention to the words used to express ideas or convey information.
  • Clarity (or absence of ambiguity).
    Apart from being sophisticated in presentation and use of words, academic papers should also convey the intended meaning without being confusing even for experts in the topic or discipline. Unnecessary use of sophisticated vocabulary for the mere purpose of showing off can result in failure to convey the intended meaning and loss of a significant chunk of your readers. If your audience is continually struggling to make sense of your writing due to the excessive number of arcane and bizarre words, that should be the first sign that something is wrong with your approach. And unless you do something about it, they will stop reading your work altogether sooner or later! Therefore, your primary goal here is to learn to strike a balance between using sophisticated vocabulary and getting your message across most effectively. Keep in mind that your choice of words should not only help you make your writing easier to understand but also render it more attractive for your potential readers.
  • Objectivity.
    In the world of academic writing, creators are expected to use facts extensively when expressing ideas or views. In particular, this means avoiding bias, especially in scientifically oriented disciplines or topics. Even when there is a definite requirement to present one's own views or opinions, using facts to buttress one's viewpoint is an absolute must. Similarly, personal pronouns that diminish the strength and objectivity of an argument or viewpoint (e.g. 'I' and 'my'), judgemental words, and emotive language are to be avoided at all costs. The same is true of personal and judgemental phrases that quickly reveal the personal inclination of the writer toward the issue. Such words include:
    • 'I strongly believe';
    • 'In my view';
    • 'I personally think';
    • 'to my mind';
    • 'highly disgusting';
    • 'horrible';
    • 'the most amazing'.
    All such personal and judgemental words project - whether intentionally or unintentionally - are the writer's partiality or bias. Instead of "I" or 'my' use 'the author' where necessary. Overall, your academic papers should be formal, impersonal, and heavy on facts or evidence.
  • Use of references (or citations).
    There is no avoiding this important convention, which is why academic authors are to support their ideas (or information conveyed) with relevant sources, especially if the information is not 100% original. Doing so promotes intellectual honesty and rewards people who created the cited materials. The more citations an author or scholar collects for the original work, the more prominence or fame is accorded to them as experts in the field or topic. Another noteworthy point here is that there are different styles of referencing which typically vary depending on a discipline and placement of citations: if a citation is inserted in the main body of the paper, it is called an in-text citation, but if it's placed at the end of the paper it is called a reference list. Some popular referencing methods include APA style (which stands for American Psychological Association and denotes a referencing style used by this professional body of American psychologists), AMA style (which stands for American Medical Association and designates a referencing style used by the professional body of American medical practitioners), CSE style (Council of Science Editors), and Bluebook citation style. Being part of style conventions, citation styles also prescribe how to use numbers and dates for indexing or listing in the body of writing.

Genre Conventions in Writing

In this section, we'll be looking at various conventions applicable to different genres of writing. The word 'genre' can be confusing for some people, so before we proceed any further, let's try and define it: 'genre' refers to a distinct category of writing characterized by a set of unique methods and characteristics that are to be observed in the body of the paper. When it comes to writing (it being an integral part of literature), there is a whole host of different genres one can enumerate, including drama, horror, romance, science fiction (sci-fi), adventure, comedy, documentary, etc.

Different genres have different limitations and unique features, but they all share some important conventions which include the following.

  • Presence of the protagonist.
    Regardless of the genre (be it drama, horror, science fiction, etc.), there should always be the protagonist, or the central character/characters, around whom the whole story revolves. In the action genre, the protagonist is commonly depicted as a heroic person, whereas in the science fiction genre, in addition to being a heroic personality, the protagonist frequently possess some unique physical characteristics that enhance their natural abilities and help them accomplish their goals effortlessly. For example, in the popular Spider-Man comic book series, the protagonist (named Peter Parker), who wears a red-blue, form-fitting, and web-patterned bodysuit, has the ability to spin spider web and climb high-rise buildings.
  • Presence of the antagonist.
    Just as the name suggests, the antagonist is a character that opposes the protagonist. The story often reveals how the differences in beliefs, characters, and goals contribute to an adversarial relationship between the antagonist and protagonist.
  • Setting.
    This is when and where events depicted in a particular piece of literature take place, regardless of the genre. In science fiction, setting implies a made-up place, the inspiration for which was an actual physical location. The same is true of timing, which may be either in distant past or future and used to depict events that are still to come or had already happened.
  • Plot.
    This is a cause and effect sequence of events in a story. For example, it is widespread for horror stories to have a haunted house where some unfortunate event, such as murder, occurred, which causes an otherworldly aura to be persistently present in the place. Usually, the principal characters involved will have a role to play in eventually untangling the twisted mystery enveloping the circumstances of the murder.
  • Resolution.
    This is how complex issues and events get resolved.
  • Delivery style.
    The style of delivery refers to ways in which a literary work is presented to the audience. Although typical for a number of genres, this convention can be applied differently. For example, the romance genre presupposes an abundance of strong emotional scenes, whereas in the horror genre the emphasis is usually on scary or visually repulsive scenes meant to frighten the audience. The action genre, on the other hand, is characterized by extensive use of weaponry, the depiction of physical violence scenes, and loud explosive sounds.
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Conventions of Narrative Writing

When it comes to narrative writing, the fundamental point to bear in mind is that it is all about telling stories (either factual or fictional). Although it is true that storytelling is an art, it takes a combination of things to create great stories that captivate the audience and help them vividly visualize events in their minds. And that is precisely why conventions, or story-telling techniques, are to be observed in narrative writing. As far as structure is concerned, a narrative consists of the following:

  • Orientation.
    This part serves as an introduction of key characters, places, and circumstances that shape the narrative. It also helps the reader understand the background of the story. In other words, this part 'sets the stage'.
  • A sequence of events: This is the flow or plot of the story, which relates to key events that shape the whole narrative
  • Complication.
    This is everything that serves to boost suspense (e.g., some unexpected and perhaps shocking events). It is also the key attraction for readers who not only like or can relate to the events but are also eager to learn how the story ends.
  • Resolution.
    This is the final part that largely brings closure to the story (it can be either a happy or sad ending). When a narrative is replete with sadness and has an unfortunate outcome, it is known as a tragedy. Sometimes, the writer may add a coda (or additional section) to provide more details about the impact of final events on the characters if for some reason it is not fully reflected in the resolution.

Other narrative conventions include characterization, plot, setting, themes, descriptive and action words, viewpoints, climax, and, of course, mechanics (since it is connected to writing). Characters are the key participants in a story each of which can be described in a way that reveals their personality, likes and dislikes, beliefs and proclivities. Strong and vivid descriptions can help readers relate to the problems characters face in the plot. Setting refers to the time and place in which the plot is set, e.g., the story can be set in Germany in 1932 when Hitler became German Chancellor. A story with such a setting can follow a family or some individuals by showing how the rise of Hitler and Nazism shaped their lives.

To master the art of writing and be able to create great stories that capture your readers' imagination, practice is absolutely necessary. On the one hand, you can read works of widely acclaimed writers (or those you consider an inspiration to you), paying attention to conventions or techniques they had used to engage their readers. On the other, you can practice writing your own stories to put the skills you have picked up after reading books of your favorite authors to the test. Ultimately, writing practice allows you to hone your narrative writing skills and master storytelling techniques, thus making your stories truly unique due to a distinctly original writing style.

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