When to Break the Rules of Writing
“Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”
– Frank Zappa, composer/musician
As a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction, my work is governed by the rules and conventions that were instilled from schooling, professional experience, and reading other works. I’m paid to convey ideas and stir the imaginations of the reader. To defy those rules completely would make my writing incomprehensible. And I’d end up broke and unemployed.
However, times are changing and rules that have been entrenched for centuries do need a facelift from time to time. We’ve inherited a number of rules and styles, whether it is implementing Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style or following your previous teacher’s guidelines to get better grades.
In this article, we’ll take a look at just a few of the possible ways writers can—and should—break the rules of writing.
Rules of Writing 1: Reading and Writing No More
Freelance writing is a strange job. I must admit that I do love getting the attention of people at parties when I mention I make my career as a “writer”; I’m also equally dismayed when I fill out list my occupation as a “writer” on tax forms.
My occupation itself is a bit misnomer. I’m not a write-er, but a typer, no? And using voice-dictation software, complicates things further—am I just a talker?
So, what do I really do?
Our definitions are changing. As writers, we must turn our backs on conventions and clichés; instead we must think beyond “thinking outside the box.” If you really think about it, the act of reading is hallucination. Essentially, writers form images and ideas in the mind’s eye of the reader.
With the disintegration of what a writer is and what reading actually is, why are old rules still important?
Rules of Writing 2: Write What You Know?
There’s a common saying among writers that you should only write about what you know. This is well-intentioned advice: it does bring in a depth of knowledge and first-hand experience that lends immediacy and accuracy to the writing.
However, the problem is that there’s PLENTY of literature that’s written about future events, fantastical world, and even biographies of past and present figures from authors that have never even met the person they’re writing about. Consider memoirs and biography: can we really vouch for the accuracy of our own memories 100%? I think not.
So, feel free to break this rule of writing. Instead, modify it to:
“Write about what you know. If you don’t know, find out. If you can’t find out, use your imagination.”
If you’re more interested about writing about what you DON’T know, check out our article on this topic here.
Rules of Writing 3: Accurately Expressing States of Mind
Ever tried writing while drunk?
That’s a rhetorical question, we all know how you spend your Wednesday mornings. To me, when I’ve looked at the written byproduct afterwards, I’m always fascinated by the particular language that I’m attempting. The endemic errors brought on by the lack of motor control accurately portray not only the subject matter (maudlin), but also level of self-awareness in an impaired person. For writers, why don’t we incorporate this as a literary device?
Here’s another scenario: Have you ever had a conversation with a person that talks like a run-on sentence and seems to purposely abuse personal boundaries by endlessly stringing together irrelevant opinions seamlessly and seems to have made their point within the first few words but there’s a perverse subtext of control and submission that is perpetuated because they seem to ignore punctuation and grammatical syntax that is more often the rule of serious writ—
Enough. You get my point. People in agitated states of mind, especially ones that are impaired by drugs, stress or nervous disorders, make fascinating reading material. But put that through a grammar check or even the latest apps designed to make your writing better and you lose the essence of communication.
Conclusions? 1) Break the rules when it more accurately expresses your subject matter. 2) Don’t drink and write.
Rules of Writing 4: Dysfunctional Forms, New Styles and Colloquial Punctuation
Ever tried to literally transcribe a conversation between a number of participants, only to be forced to heavily edit it so that the document “reads” better? Instead of adding all the important “umms”, significant pauses, and inflection, we’re left with a facsimile of what actually transpired. The document would be littered with hyphenations, sentence fragments, colloquialisms, and even non-verbal communication that is difficult to capture. God help you if you tried to include body language…
If you ask me, clever writers can capture this and other elements of life by regularly breaking rules of writing. Often, we’ll see “[sic]” added when the writer accurately expresses the literal words a person has spoken or used versus the proper or intended usage. “He was overconfiscating [sic] his lack of education with big words.”
But what about emojis and emoticons? They’re a type of colloquial punctuation, but they’re certainly valid. I can assure you that there isn’t a wide-spread style guide on the “proper” usage of 😛 versus ;-D. But it is a form of punctuating written speech that does convey an emotion and a usage that may work.
What about tone? Consider the difference between one exclamation mark versus two versus three. Three seems comical or an extreme emotion, two seems like an error, and one exclamation mark might just indicate importance.
Related to exclamation marks, let’s go one step further. What about including writing in all capital letters? IT’S THE INTERNET VERSION OF SHOUTING AND YOU DON’T EVEN NEED AN EXCLAMATION MARK.
This is only the tip of the iceberg, however. An article/book on modern writing techniques needs to be written, but it’s beyond the scope of this article.
Rules of Writing 5: Intended Audience
As a writer, you should always consider the reader, even if that person is yourself in the future. While many writers feel compelled to produce work for the widest audience as possible as (especially for clients), this rule/compulsion should be broken periodically.
Why? Because your intended audience should dictate your style. Consider how you’d craft an article entitled “Snapchat for Seniors” vs. “Snapchat for Teenagers”. Ten bucks says the form and content will vary drastically.
This isn’t a new concept, either. Using big words can be a cheap way of expressing intellectual dominance to those unfamiliar with the terms, much like parents spelling out controversial terms in front of their children. Similarly, the English dialects of Polari and Cockney were/are used to obfuscate language to avoid exposure to the authorities—not the intended audience.
Rules of Writing 6: Illustrate with the 4th Wall
For the non-fiction writer, breaking the rules can can be used to illustrate a point. For instance, the last sentence purposely included two can’s, which is case in point. The last two sentences also began with “For”, too. Even explaining this feels like me, the writer, is speaking more directly to you, the reader.
However, you can take advantage of using the 4th wall as a demonstrative process.
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As my final note, we all see the color red differently, but a STOP sign is a STOP sign. It’s your choice to make a rolling stop.