Saturday, October 6, 2007

Breaking All the Rules

Every writer does it; so why shouldn't you?

We all know there are rules to good writing. There are grammatical rules (ouch!) and there are syntax rules, or rules that govern your usage of one word over another. There are even rules that I call social rules (things that are no longer strictly grammar rules, like not ending a sentence with a preposition, but still considered bad writing in the right social circles).

Yet, we all know very successful writers who break, well, if not all, at least some of these rules on a regular basis.

So what gives? Are rules meant to be kept ... or broken?

Some of the most notorious rule-breakers have also been some of the most lauded writers. You can't get through Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms or For Whom the Bell Tolls without stumbling over hundreds of broken rules, grammatical, syntax, and social. Similarly, the Beat era beacon, Jack Kerouac, broke rules regularly. Yet, both these writers are generally regarded as giants in literature. (Well, okay, not by everyone ... Truman Capote once said of Kerouac's work, "That's not writing--it's typing!)

So why does everyone tell you to follow the rules of good writing if you want to be a good writer?

Actually, I don't. Or, rather, I don't, given one inviolable admonition. You must know the rules before you can break them.

Breaking the rules out of ignorance results in poor, convoluted reading. Rules are rules for a reason. We cling to them in order to make literature easier to read and understand. Without any rules at all, reading would be virtually impossible. (That's one of the things that made the Beat era's writing so difficult to read; one of the reasons Shakespeare is such hard going for so many people unfamiliar with old English.) Simply put, when you violate the rules unwittingly, you make it more difficult for your readers to understand your writing.

One of my least favorite broken rules from ignorance is the misplaced modifier. Take this sentence:

"Seeing the speeding car, the gutter was the first place Jack thought to jump."

Since the noun, "gutter," has been unwittingly placed nearest to the introductory adverbial clause ("seeing the speeding car"), the reader's mind automatically reads the sentence as saying that the gutter saw the speeding car; and--of course--that's not only confusing, it's impossible. The proper, and thus more acceptable, sentence construction is this:

"Seeing the speeding car, Jack jumped into the first place of which he thought, the gutter."

Now the reader's mind quickly and correctly places "Jack" as the noun being modified by the introductory clause--it is Jack, and not the gutter, who sees the speeding car.

The first sentence is a perfect (and perfectly common) example of breaking a rule and creating poor writing out of ignorance. Breaking rules for dramatic effect, however, is nearly as common and far more acceptable. Here's one example:

"Seeing the speeding car, Jack stopped. Looked. The gutter! It was his only chance."

In this example, "Looked" is treated as a complete sentence, and yet it has no subject to support the definition of a sentence. Similarly, "The gutter" is treated as a complete sentence, although it possesses no verb, the other component required in order to have a complete sentence.

But put together with the surrounding words, the thought conveyed is still easy for the reader's mind to understand (partly because we tend to talk that way, therefore we are comfortable in thinking that way). It is also far stronger, more dramatic, and more emphatic than the grammatically correct, "Seeing the speeding car, Jack jumped into the first place of which he thought, the gutter."

Of course, simply knowing the rules of good writing doesn't mean you can break them with impunity. Think of a correctly worded sentence as a perfectly painted landscape. The tones all work together, the direction and movement are beyond flaw, the perspective and proportion are perfect.

Now think of re-inventing that landscape as a cubist or an impressionist painter might. The results would nr equally acceptable, even preferable, to an art patron schooled in cubism and impressionism, although they may be scoffed at by a realist with little patience for such "new fangled notions" in art.

The same is true when you break the rules in writing. You do so not to cause the reader difficulty in reading or in understanding what you're writing, but rather to re-invent the sentence for a very specific, intentionally created purpose.

So the next time you want to break the rules, go right ahead. Just make sure you know what rules you're breaking and why. The goal in breaking rules--just as the goal in writing--must always be to create better, more understandable, more effective literature.

Until you've reached a point in your development as a writer in which you can do so, do yourself and everyone else a favor and pick up a copy of Strunk's The Elements of Style or A Dictionary of Modern American Usage or The Chicago Manual of Style ... and use it! Over and over again. Until you know your craft inside out.

Sound tough? Some people might find it so. But for them, I am reminded of one of my favorite literary quotes: "Easy writing is damned vile reading."


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