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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