I did a rant post about rules last week. Premise: there no RULES to writing any more than there are rules for speaking. This is the rebuttal. Yes, I argue with myself.
Let’s start with the chorus: no one has to know any damned rules. There is only one imperative to writing–WRITE. The entire learning process is this and only this: write, (share) judge whether the results met your aims, repeat.
The parenthetical share applies to those who write to be understood by others. Many people don’t ever do that. Writing can be private. Much of it is never shared with other eyes. And that is why rules can be ignored. If you’re the only audience, do as you will, (an’ it harm none and all that.)
You can also ignore rules without consequence when you know with certainty that you and your audience share every possible communication preference and convention. Whole communities of happy writers and readers exist all over the interwebz, reveling in writing so bad it horrifies other audiences. But how can it be bad if everyone involved in community loves it? Only by comparison, and any comparison is inherently flawed by a lack of shared premises.
But there is a coda to the ‘there are no rules’ song: all knowledge exists for a reason.
See, the conventions and practices people call rules for writing exist for a damned good reason. Yes, they’re malleable, changeable, audience dependent, and inconsistently applied at best, yes, it’s absurd to call them rules, but they exist because there’s a gap between reader and writer. That big ‘ol chasm of assumptions and expectations needs bridging.
Rules are meant to be gap-spanning bridges, not walls. They become fences between good and bad because humans divide everything that way. (There’s reasons for that, too. Again, good reasons and bad, but I’m not getting into philosophy. I’m only talking about practicalities today.) Suffice that the reason we set fences around writing is that communication takes two. When two or three gather together, someone will start making judgments.
Once you choose to share to a wider, unknown audience, you’d be wise to dig deeper than “what you mean to say” with your writing. Compare your words against the words of the widest possible audience, judge for yourself whether your words meet the broadest, mostly widely-accepted conventions of communication–and then decide how or if you want your words to change.
Now, as I’ve discussed in many another rant, it’s always your choice to make. Not the choice of some expert rules arbiter saying writing must be designed thusly to qualify as “acceptable.”
But your decisions will have consequences. The judgment of your audience may not be kind or accepting. When you defy convention, be braced for your readers’ appreciation of your writing to differ radically from your own.
When you write what you want, however you want, others are more likely to reject it because they don’t share your assumptions, they don’t like your departures from traditional approaches, or even because they can’t parse your elegant sentences. Those are the risks you take when you go to war with the rules.
And here’s another important fact: it’s far, far better to be prepared for war than to charge into battle unarmed and ignorant.
THAT’S why good people suggest knowing the rules first before you beak them. Not for the writing part at all. It’s all about weathering the process of sharing your non-standard writing with others.
In the final analysis there still. Are. No. RULES. Writing, like speaking, is learned in the doing, and the rest is naught but accepted conventions and shared preferences.
Insisting everyone write according to certain plot structures or obey specific grammar guidelines keeps a lot of writing advice columnists and self-proclaimed protectors of language employed, but it doesn’t make their advice true for writing.
It does make it useful for predicting how people will judge the completed written work.
My big conclusion: writing rules aren’t rules, they’re conventions, and those conventions apply to reaching the audience, not to writing as an act of creation.
Okay. I’m done.