When Writing Rules are Wrong

I’m a firm believer that writers need to know the rules, and most of the time, that they should follow them. But this depends greatly on what kind of rules we’re talking about.

Grammar rules are the ones I support the most. We need to know what a comma splice is, and a fragment, and a dangling modifier; our verb tenses need to agree with our subjects, and our spelling should be consistent.

In other words, we need writing that doesn’t draw attention to its components but to its content, and that is achieved by writing well, so that those who write better aren’t constantly jolted by poor grammar or spelling.

But these are also the rules we break, from time to time, for effect. The occasional fragment or comma splice can change the rhythm and can help us tell the story by making the reader pause over that portion, just a little longer than otherwise.

The ones I question most are the rules of taste. Such things as “show, don’t tell” or “use strong verbs and avoid adjectives.” There isn’t anything grammatically wrong with writing that contains telling, or writing with a great many adjectives, but these rules would suggest otherwise.

Really, these rules are just summarizations of our current trends in reading. During the Victorian era, a completely different set was in vogue: “tell, don’t just show” was highly popular, as morals were expected to be expounded by the books’ authors. Descriptions were frequently the norm, and they frequently adjectives and adverbs, and narrators abounded. Now, we pride ourselves on our action, our pithy terseness, and our stream-of-consciousness writing.

Nothing is technically wrong with either; it just depends on what sort of reading audience you are dealing with. (And the rule about not ending sentences in prepositions falls under the mythical grammar rules category, put in place by lovers of Latin who imported the grammar rules of that language into ours without any good reason; they don’t deserve our loyalty in the least, as this article from the Smithsonian Magazine beautifully explains.)

The trouble is, writers like to come up with lists of writing rules. They simplify our lives and can help give us a general idea of what works…but they can’t be taken as universal.

I recently read a re-posted list of ten writing rules by Elmore Leonard, and I agreed with most of them, in theory. They spoke of such things as not starting a book with the weather or a prologue, and not using words other than “said” to carry the dialogue, and not modifying the term “said” to include adverbs like “gently,” “gravely,” “lovingly,” etc. All of them were good…in theory.

In practice, though, such rules don’t always work. You can’t avoid using something other than “said” sometimes—characters whisper or suddenly shout. He also says to avoid “great detail” in one’s description of places or things, but how much detail you put in depends on what you are writing (and on your idea of how much “great detail” involves).

His tenth rule was the best, though. He said to “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” The idea is that if you, as a reader, don’t like part of your work, other readers probably won’t either.

And I think that is the one rule that writers need to follow. You can’t cling to any particular writing trend and call it a rule, because great writers break all of them as needed…even the much-favored “show, don’t tell.” (Can you imagine how many pages it would’ve taken Dickens to show “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”?)

It takes being a good reader to know when something is working and when it isn’t. This might not be as quick and easy as scanning your work for places where you break the rules—it requires you to identify what you like as a reader and why it works—but in the end, it’s the only way to write something that lasts.

Otherwise, when the writing trends change again, all the sections of your writing that were done solely to adhere to a particular “rule” will just sound awkward, contrived, and, well…wrong.

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren

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