There has long been debate among authors as to whether or not they should follow writing rules. The opinions swing from the die-hard believers that good books must follow every ‘rule’ ever written to those who believe they should be ignored because following rules compromises their creativity.
Many assume that editors must all believe in rigidly following ‘rules’, but that is not the case because editing is a lot more than just applying the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation; at the developmental and line editing stage, editing is an art form where the editor makes informed decisions as to how to best communicate the author’s intent.
It doesn’t have to be an either/or opinion.
Personally, apart from the conventions of grammar and punctuation that remain current, I think of what some call writing rules as writing tips or guidelines. The idea is to use these guidelines in a way that will help, not hinder.
Don’t concern yourself with them on your first draft when you’re just trying to get the story out while the inspiration is flowing. Use them at the self-editing stage to turn your telling into showing, to tighten up your prose and make it more interesting, and use them as a diagnostic tool to help you work out why a scene isn’t as powerful as it should be.
The danger of breaking rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling.
There are, of course, clear rules for grammar, punctuation and spelling, and if you break them, you run the risk of being misunderstood; for example, when your adjectival clause doesn’t relate to the right verb. You’ll also look like an amateur and have your book rejected in disgust by anyone who recognises your mistakes, so we do need to pay attention to these kinds of conventions. The only reason I see to flaunt these kinds of conventions is if it improves the book. You need a good reason.
Why editors don’t always agree.
At the same time, some aspects of punctuation are flexible, particularly in UK/Australian conventions. The important thing is to be consistent with your usage throughout, and the overriding factor in ‘correctness’ is whether the usage makes the meaning clear or obscures it, and whether it adds or detracts from the flow and rhythm of the reading experience. For example, in dialogue the authenticity of the characters’ speech patterns always has precedence over grammar rules.
How guidelines help.
Guidelines, such as those in my book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine, steer us away from overusing certain things and help us to see options that may be more interesting and more evocative than what we might write in our first draft. I don’t say that you should never use the constructions I suggest you avoid; I’m saying your writing will be better if you don’t use them too often. Frankly, though, ignoring the kind of advice I give in the book risks quick rejection from publishers, possibly even before they finish the first chapter.
There are fashions in style too. You can ignore modern trends, but unless you write your old style extremely well—or are writing historical fiction—be prepared to not rate so well against books that do follow the trends, because trends are a response to reader preferences—and they’re the ones buying.
Know them before you ignore them.
Tips for structuring plots, developing characters, writing realistic dialogue and so on abound in writing books and on the internet. I see all of these as tools, not rules, to be used where they are relevant and discarded where they aren’t. The skill of the author and editor is in knowing where they are relevant, but you do have to know them before you can ignore them with confidence and impunity. It took me a while to realise the truth of that, but it is true.
Knowing your grammar and punctuation and understanding the reasons for the kind of tips I present in The Elements of Active Prose are like having technique in dancing. Everyone can dance, but studying and practising the technique of dancing transforms someone’s dancing from that of an amateur to that of a professional, and once internalised, the technique enhances rather than limits the dancer’s creativity. In the same way authors can study and practice using the writing rules/tips/guidelines to the point where the knowledge is a natural part of their writing.
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Charles Ray says
You make an excellent point. While there might be a case for breaking a rule in a particular situation, you must first ‘know’ the rule – that, at least, is what I tell the students in my ‘Government Writing Workshop’ every summer.
Tahlia Newland says
Yes, the old, ýou have to know the rules”before you can break them” adage is actually true. Only then do you have the confidence that you’re not just making an idiot of yourself in front of those who do know them.
Peter Trewin says
Just posted a review of ‘The Elements of Active Prose’ on Amazon then saw your post. Coincidence or serendipity?
An Essential Self-Help Book For Writers
By Pete Trewin on 13 Aug. 2016
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a great self-help book for writers seeking to beef up their prose style. Many will be familiar with tips such as ‘show don’t tell’, ‘use active rather than passive prose’, and ‘cut out adverbs’, but here it is clearly and succinctly set out for you with examples, all in an easy readable style (I suppose if it wasn’t you’d want your money back) – I opened the package from Amazon and read the book right through in one sitting. Then I got a magic marker and read it carefully – marking the bits which indicated that I needed to work on my own writing. Newland emphasises that these are guidelines and not rules, but if you want to break them you need to know what you are breaking.
I would put this book alongside ‘Self–Editing for Fiction Writers’ by Browne and King and ‘Story’ by Robert McKee as essential books for writers. If you are a true beginner then I would start with ‘How Not to Write a Novil’ (sic) by Mittelmark and Newman. – a hilarious guide to the howlers that beginner writes make (Don’t laugh too loud and set next door’s dog off again – you might have to sheepishly acknowledge that you make some of the mistakes yourself).
There is even a section in ‘The Elements of Active Prose’ on how to write book reviews – maybe I’d better read it again. Says he sheepishly (S***, another darn adverb!) Highly recommended. 5 stars
Tahlia Newland says
Thanks Peter. I’m glad you found it helpful.
The elements of active prose have been a great help. However, I have to say working with you on my manuscript has made the biggest impact. It made all the difference to have the ‘rules’ applied to my own material.
Tahlia Newland says
Thanks Gudrun. There’s nothing quite like having someone else’s eye on your work.