When to Break the Rules


Something I feel particularly strongly about in writing:  If you are a writer you must learn the rules of working with words, just like if you are an artist you must learn the proper techniques for mixing your paint. For writing this means being intimately familiar with the rules of punctuation, grammar.  That’s not to say if we read or produce something in its early stages with a bit of dodgy grammar that it has no value, but we have to try to get it right from the beginning, and to achieve a worthy final result we have to keep revising until we reach 100%.

Why am I saying this?  Because I sometimes see writing which is based on a fantastic idea, but I am barely able to understand it because of the errors.  I am really not trying to be a pedant here.  Bad punctuation, for instance, ruins the way I parse sentences, cuts me off from any sense of immersion and leaves me unable to digest the ideas in what I have just read.  Perhaps I’m just unusually sensitive, but I think it’s the same for everyone to an extent.  We need to abide by the rules of punctuation and grammar to ensure our ideas are effectively conveyed.

And that is literally the entire point of writing. Communicating our ideas.

Once you know the rules, you don’t even have to follow them.  You can break them whenever you like, because when you understand why the rules exist and what they do, your breaking them does something meaningful.  Picasso can draw perfectly proportioned people, but he paints as a cubist.  If he couldn’t do any better than draw sloppy faces we might not respect his artistic vision, but because we know he could obey the rules if he wanted to, we might begin to notice something special in what he does, for example, how sometimes the edges of the faces he draws are actually perfect profiles, and weird lines which intersect the cheek are three-quarter profiles.

Multiple perspectives are seen in a single image
Multiple perspectives are seen in a single image

More examples of cubist portraits here.

You don’t have to like the results.  Cormac McCarthy can ignore the rules of punctuation if he wants, but I still disliked the style used in The Road.  Dialogue without quotation marks was a mess to follow.  In spite of that, I still I trust him as an experienced writer to break the rules far more than I would a teenager writing their first story.

I encourage you to fall in love with punctuation, grammar and words.  It is the stuff from which you forge your works.  You need to hone your craft until picking the right words is like mixing fine colours.  You need to know your grammar so you can carry your audience forwards without drawing attention to the seams.  You need to sharpen your skill until you know how to balance all the tension of a scene on a knife-edge comma.  You need to find the right mix of everything to make a delicious meal where all the ingredients work together.

2 thoughts on “When to Break the Rules

  1. ~ K Reply

    I agree and disagree. I am fastidious about my own grammar and find being ungrammatical uncomfortable. I am a perfectionist who hates to present myself in any other way because I am so self-conscious. And I absolutely agree that it’s much easier to communicate when you follow rules and certain conventions. It’s also much easier to edit something that is already written with good grammar, style, etc. But when other people write, if they have interesting ideas, I can ignore bad grammar. They just need a good editor/proofreader. Also, the rules of language change so rapidly that something that may not seem like it has rules or conventions, could turn out actually to have some. The hard part for me as a writer is having good ideas, so I envy people who can write prolifically even if their grammar is atrocious. You can edit bad grammar, but you can’t edit something that hasn’t been written.

  2. C.J. Lawrence Reply

    Agree with what you’re saying. I guess I didn’t explain that bit properly – I still value the ideas of people who write with bad grammar, and I think it’s unfair to dismiss their thoughts out of hand because of the way they write, I just honestly have a harder time understanding them.

    I also think bad grammar due to inexperience may be fine, but if you don’t build on that and learn how to improve, especially if you are a writer, then that becomes laziness.

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