Writing Conventions Versus

Go Your Own Way: Writing Conventions Versus Self-Expression

The writing process if often intensely personal because, at its heart, writing is an act of self-expression. Whether you're working on poems in your diary or a research paper for your chemistry class, the words you put down on the page are an expression of who you are and what you are thinking.
Because writing is an extension of the writer's personality and style of thinking, writers can run into trouble when their personal vision bumps up against the strict rules of formal writing. When you feel strongly about the content and style of your work, it can be hard to fit that excitement into the standard format of a literature review or essay. But, while many students try to get away with being daring and new, breaking from the guidelines in as assignment will likely hurt your grade more than it helps. So how can you decide when you need to follow conventions and when you should feel free to just be you?

Know Your Audience

It's common for students to want to fight against standard writing conventions, which can often seem boring and constraining. Sometimes this can be a good decision that will make your paper feel fresh and original, but sometimes these choices will just make your paper look unprofessional. Which category your paper ends up in will usually depend not only on what you're writing, but who you're writing for.
Ultimately, it will be your teacher or professor who decides the fate of your paper, which means you need to tailor your work to fit their expectations. You can write a fresh, daring essay that subverts normal writing conventions by using a question-and-answer format, but it won't matter if your teacher specifically asked you to write PEAL paragraphs. In other words, it won't matter how good your work is if you aren't following the guidelines for the assignment, which means before you make any daring decisions you should always ask your teacher or professor first.

Common Problems

There are a number of common academic writing conventions that students frequently want to change, work around, or just ignore.

Organizational structure

Once they get comfortable with standard paper formats like IMRAD and introduction-body-conclusion, students often want to break away and try something new. Maybe you want to experiment with something simple like building to the thesis slowly instead of putting it in the introduction, or maybe you want to do something more complex like write your paper from the viewpoint of a character in a novel.
Often these sorts of organizational choices can lead to interesting papers, but you want to make sure that you're still making a sound argument. Remember, the whole point of writing a research paper is to put forth an idea and provide evidence for it. As long as your accomplishing that goal you can feel free to try all sorts of new ideas (usually with your teacher's permission). However, if you get so wrapped up in doing subverting the format that your argument gets lost, then you probably want to stick with the conventional structure.
Another important point to keep in mind about structure is that you can get away with more in classes like English or history. In these classes it's more common to be assigned a free-form essay, while in the sciences you might be asked to write something specific like an IMRAD paper or a literature review. For these specific assignments, there isn't any wiggle room: if you're assigned an IMRAD paper, you need to write an IMRAD paper.


There are a lot of elements that go into a writing style. Elements like punctuation, length of sentences, literary devices (e.g., alliteration or metaphors), person (e.g., first, second, or third), and even capitalization all come together to create the individual style of a writer. In academic writing, there are conventions that govern all of these issues. For example, most essays are written in the third person, and variable sentence lengths are considered a sign of good writing.
All of these issues, however, present an option for personalization. You can choose to write an essay in second person or include lots of short sentences for emphasis-while not conventional, these choices won't necessarily sink your paper. Again, what you need to focus on is whether they improve your argument or whether they're just a gimmick.

Sentence structure

The rules of sentence structure are pretty rigid, so it's not unexpected that as a writer you might want to push back against those rules. Maybe you think starting lots of sentences with conjunctions or using fragments is a great way to create a unique style and make your paper interesting. After all, those techniques are commonly used (very successfully) in fiction, poetry, and opinion essays, right?
Unfortunately for those of you wanting to try out something new, academic assignments aren't the place to experiment with sentence structure. While run-ons and fragments are great for other arenas, when it comes to formal writing it's important to stick with those formal grammar rules. So, if you're writing an essay on Shakespeare you need to make sure you follow proper writing conventions and save those experimental 70-word sentences for your next story or poem.

Word choice

Much like the strict rules for sentence structure, the guidelines for word choice in formal writing can seem constricting. Often we can easily think of how we'd communicate something in everyday language, but when it comes time to translate that thought into academic speak it gets muddled. But, as much as you might dislike academic diction, when it comes to formal writing assignments you don't really have much choice. You might think that tossing in idioms or slang will make your paper seem edgy or conversational, but it will really just make you look unprofessional.

The Bottom Line

The writing you do for classes and academic assignments is an expression of you and your unique ideas, which means it's up to you to decide whether you want to follow the rules or forge your own path. If the result of a creative decision creates a piece of writing that you think is interesting and original that's great, but just be sure to always keep your teacher (and your grades) in mind. In the end, how you choose to walk the line between self-expression and academic conventions is up to you.

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