In Writing, There Are Rules, And Then There Are “Rules”

Writing has rules. And writing has “rules.”

By which I mean, writing is beholden to two things:

Laws and guidelines.

Laws are mostly immutable. A period goes at the end of a sentence. Commas work a certain way. Words mean things. Grammar, punctuation, parts of speech, etc.

These laws grow more complex, of course. Byzantine, even. And the more complex they become, the more mutable they get — technically, you don’t put a preposition at the end of a sentence, but really? You can. And most do. You’re not supposed to use sentence fragments, either. But you can use sentence fragments to excellent effect: the short, sharp shock of information delivered. It can set a staccato rhythm. Just as deft use of a run-on sentence — also a technical no-no — can draw out rhythm and give your prose a purposefully meandering, stream-of-consciousness feel.

Guidelines are a different animal. They feel like laws and are often reported as such because it’s much easier and more interesting to yell YOU SHOULD NEVER USE ADVERBS instead of the more even-handed hey, maybe you should think very hard whether that adverb is necessary here because it might not be, okay? Never mind the fact that in the phrase “never use adverbs,” the word ‘never’ is actually a goddamn adverb, and so are lots of words you will use frequently like ‘now,’ ‘here,’ ‘there,’ ‘always,’ ‘yesterday,’ ‘everywhere,’ or even, ahem, ‘frequently.’ Writing advice is often about guidelines and not about laws, though, so many of the givers of advice (or shouters of advice) appear do so as if they are banging a gavel against the stone binding of a bonafide holy book. This is doubly more complicated when they begin to deliver storytelling advice, which is waltzing on ground that is as unstable as a field made of wadded-up jizz-tissues.

(Don’t even get me started on publishing advice. Yoinks.)

And I say all this as a person who quite clearly delivers a goodly bit of writing, storytelling and publishing advice weekly. I say this to remind you, in part, that what I say here is really just a suggestion — advice on par with how to how to brew coffee or how to perform a given sex-move. You do what you like. Different squeaks for different freaks.

Or: whatever makes your grapefruit squirt, you know?

Because every writer is a different animal. A mythic beastie whose mold was broken.

But herein lies the value of writing advice: these are things worth considering. Seeing how other writers do things matters. Just as the very nature of writing is not immutable, neither is your process, and neither is your grip on language, character, plot, story. Writing advice gets you to engage in the thoughtwork necessary to say, is my way better, worse, different, or what? It demands you ask, is there a way to improve what I’m doing, and is this way the way forward, or is it a step backward? It behooves you to pick up a tool and check its heft, its grip and its function before dismissing it entirely.

Learn the laws. Observe — and challenge — the guidelines.

Some writers violate the laws and guidelines because they never beheld them in the first place, in which case they’re not some bold explorer or given over to artistic experimentation. They’re just an orangutan with a paintbrush. (Sorry to any orangutans reading this blog.) If you use a chainsaw to perform dentistry, I’m impressed, but I’ll be a whole lot less impressed if after the act you say, “Wait, what’s a chainsaw?” Accidental genius isn’t easily duplicated.

I know that I’ve broken rules in my writing. I know that I’ve broken rules in this very post.

I know why I did it, too.

I have said before and I will say again here:

We learn the rules so that we may know when to break them.

We break the rules so that we know why we need them in the first place.

Learn your craft. Then make it your own.