Writing Rules: Made to be Broken?

We who keep writing even when it’s still not profitable run
a gauntlet of writing rules. Those writing rules reign like grouchy royalty
over our every endeavor. But can you break the rules and still succeed?

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s take a look at rules that can
be occasionally broken without penalty:

Which Rule?

Many English language writing rules exist because our language is so dang convoluted. From “I before e” to sometimes y and w, we learn to write (and spell) from our earliest school years. Then our middle school and high school teachers proceed to beset us with more rules. Topic sentence, anyone?

Beyond our educations, a few good men have given us practical advice for clear and concise writing. Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well stand ready on every good writer’s shelf. Again, their main message is: Write clearly so your reader can understand without stopping; and write concisely so you don’t clutter your piece with unnecessary words.

Since both of those books have been around for decades, they also emphasize proper grammatical usage—which may be going the way of the dinosaur. These days, writers usually ignore a rule like never end a sentence with a preposition or the oxford comma (this, that, and the other) to reflect how our written language has changed. The digital age is shaping writing in ways neither E.B. White nor Zinsser could predict.

Walk the Line

All these writing rules can give rise to eager critique groups who gleefully red pen every adverb and passive verb. While it is true that overuse of modifiers and passive to be verbs can leave one’s prose rather purple, every writer should weigh whether a word or construction hews true to one’s voice, intent and character/tone.

It takes confidence to ignore feedback that strips your work
of all no-nos just for the sake of rules. When we’re starting out, we should be
sponges ready to soak up good writing habits. We learn, for instance, that
those “was-ing” gerund constructions can be simplified to simple past tense. We
learn how modifier usage can trick us into thinking we’ve made a concise
description, when we’re really chewing the scenery.

Yet as you gain writing experience (read: practice), you’ll likely begin to see the difference between a slavish adherence to the rules and your own emerging voice. Don’t be afraid to ignore feedback from Miss Grammar Lady but first, try out the sentence in question both ways. If you don’t miss the descriptor in question, I usually bow to the red pen.

Who Cares?

Many of the best, most creative writers ignore a lot of
rules. Sentence fragments, novel constructions or dialogue sans quotation marks
can elevate a story in the right hands. Why can they get away with it? I say it’s
because they first learned to adhere to the rules they now break. It’s like
modern art—most abstract artists learn classical techniques before they
deconstruct the rules.

Yet if we writers listen too closely to the good writing guardians, we may also choke off our own creativity. The worst part is that most readers aren’t even going to notice. For instance, a group I’ve been a part of for many years has actually poked fun at bestselling novelists for rule-breaking. (Oh, this writer wrote: I don’t give a darn, she thought. The italics tell us it’s a thought—writer should have left that out.) Yet most readers wouldn’t stop reading—they’re more focused on the tension in the story.

Writing Rules are made to be mastered. And most of the time, the rules help more than they hinder.  But if your story, character or voice demand breaking some of those rules, you may be better off ignoring the rule-mavens. And that is something to crow about. 🙂

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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