Break the Rules. Shatter them.

I am so effing tired of every variation on the writing advice “you have to know the rules first before you break them.” I hate it with a passion right up there with my loathing “those who can’t do, teach” for inflicting damage on both the personal and cultural level. When I am queen of the world I shall punish its mention with the hard labor of reading college application essays. Or the diaries of teenagers.

Here’s my little contrarian manifesto. No one needs to know any “rules” of writing to write and write well. You don’t need to know them first, not before “breaking them,” NOT EVER. Period.

That’s my premise. Hate it? Stop there. Otherwise here’s the supporting logic.

Everything we do with language is aftermarket. You were speaking in sentences for years before anyone taught you “how to make proper sentences.”  You were collecting vocabulary and getting your point across ages before anyone explained proper adverb use.

Communication is all about taking uncontainable ideas and imposing a form on them to make them share-able. That’s hard enough. Insisting that any one way of stringing together ideas is What You Must Know Before You Go is nothing but exclusionary snottiness. It’s baloney–AND a doomed effort. Put three people from different professional fields or cultures together and there will be an epic  grammar, theme, and usage battle no one can win because everyone is wrong.

  •  Grammar? It’s definitely useful, but as a formal training tool it’s something that came along well after the invention of writing, not before. It’s also a cesspool of usage disagreements and nitpicking.
  • Cliches, tropes and plot structures? What’s popular today is tomorrow’s awkward fifties television rerun.
  • Spelling? A notably recent innovation, optional through most cultures through most of history.

IT’S ALL AFTERMARKET. You want to customize a new shiny car of an idea? Choose your options package and drive off the lot.  Get to the writing.

Here’s another analogy. Words are water. Most of us force them to follow certain channels most of the time. Certain watercourses are deemed more useful or more aesthetically pleasing, especially in written form, but those decisions change all the time at the whim of fashion and — hang onto your hats here– neither ubiquity nor universal acceptance make any one channel the right one for the water you want to pour, much less the best.

All the artificial, analytical constructs we apply to the act of connecting words to ideas are like canals and dams controlling a raging river. Words are the freaking ocean, and insisting they be contained by rules is as meaningless and futile as scooping the tide with a cup.

It’s the height of hubris and folly. When someone advises you to improve your writing by making it follow rules, I recommend disengaging as fast as you can. Flee fastly. Bolt like a bunny. That “help” will not make your writing in any way…

…except one.

This is Part 1 of the rant.

In Part 2, I’ll shoot down every point I made in this one.  Except not really.

2 responses to “Break the Rules. Shatter them.”

  1. gibsonauthor Avatar

    I struggle with the rules in fiction writing. On the one hand, I don’t want to make my readers work too hard. I assume their needs and desires must be accommodated, On the other hand, it seems, to me, that the few books that rise above the flood of thousands of books in fiction genres, each year, are ones that take risks. Those books we hear about in the end-of-year awards polling are not straightforward followers of the “rules.” They often seem to play with style, plot, dialog, etc, in new and interesting ways. Oh well, I guess the important thing is to gain many readers reading.

    1. Dawnrigger Avatar

      I think you’ll like part 2 next week too. If many readers is the goal, the writing demands are different than if certain readers (or none) are the goal. The problem is that the adages assume rules are both immutable and universal when they are neither. Which means they aren’t *rules* at all. Guideposts at best.

      The whole “I know bad when I see it” issue is so problematic I could do a dozen posts on various biases and blind spots. True as the statement may be (and it’s factual, I have seen a *lot* of bad writing) judgment of creative work is never universal.

      And that’s why I will continue to be a cranky voice in the wilderness insisting that the rules-first/rules-must-be-studied-overtly mentality hampers creative expression and squashes innovation.

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