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Be A Better Writer--BREAKING THE RULES

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be A Better Writer--BREAKING THE RULES

Postby glorybee » Sat May 17, 2014 3:32 pm

Several weeks ago, I was asked to provide a lesson on breaking the rules. I’ve finally got around to it, and I’ve got to say that this is one of my favorite lessons.

I’ll start by saying that’s there’s a continuum of types of writing in which it’s more appropriate to break rules, or less so. On the end of the spectrum in which it’s entirely appropriate—even expected—for the writing to flout the rules, you’ll find free verse poetry and fiction written in a unique voice (perhaps that of a child, or an autistic person, or one with limited education, or dreaming…). On the other end of the spectrum you’ll see academic writing and other sorts of writing in which there are expectations of formality. In those types of writing, there may even be additional rules to follow.

In the middle, you’ll see every other type of writing—all kinds of fiction, blogs, devotionals, essays and reports, print journalism, poetry, shopping lists, advertisements, and notes in lunchboxes.

For the rest of this lesson, I’ll take a look at five grammar rules that you may have been taught in school, and I’ll try to give you examples of when it might be totally fine to disregard those rules. (I have ten rules on my list—the last five will be covered in next week’s lesson.)

1. Do not use “I” or other personal pronouns.

Obviously, this is a rule that applies to non-fiction, and it’s one that I taught my high-school students when they were writing reports or research papers. It’s a rule that’s still important in that type of work, where the purpose is to report facts, not opinions.

But it’s perfectly fine to inject yourself into devotionals (in fact, it’s preferable), blog posts, certain types of reporting in which your research includes personal interviews or immersion into another culture, and many other types of non-fiction.

You’ll want to avoid over-doing the use “I,” especially as the first word of a sentence. After all, even though it may be your blog or narrative, it should not be totally about you. You want to appeal to your readers, too. And certainly don’t do that awkward “this writer” business, which is unnecessarily formal.

2. Avoid switching to 2nd person in a 1st or 3rd person narrative.

First, an example of this one:

Jan walked into the old house. It had that unmistakable smell—a smell like your grandma’s house .

Do you see it? Your grandma’s house. There are a few problems there—first, it brings the reader out of the story and into her own memories. Second, the writer has no idea what memories that phrase might evoke. One reader’s grandma’s house might have smelled like ginger and vanilla, but another’s might have smelled like cigarettes and mold.

So in general, you might want to avoid that—but let’s not engrave it in stone. Sometimes it just works, by evoking a common cultural experience. And it could be a great tool for establishing a narrator’s voice.

3. Never start a sentence with and, but, or so.

Nah, that’s just silly. Go ahead and do that, in places where it works for your piece. I did it in the paragraph just above this one; I could have used a comma after experience and combined the two sentences—or I could have used any of several other ways of writing those two sentences. But that’s the way that seemed best to me, and you can do the same thing. (Oh look—I just did it again, with that but in the previous sentence.)

I’ll admit that when I’m editing, I frequently combine a sentence beginning with a conjunction with the previous one, for reasons of flow. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and as your writing improves, you’ll get a feeling for the rhythm of your sentences and paragraphs, and you’ll know when to merge sentences and when to separate them.

4. Don’t use sentence fragments.

They’re fine. Really.

It bears repeating that all of these suggestions to freely pitch the rules are dependent on the type of writing. The more formal you desire to be, the more you’ll want to stick to the rules.
In most kinds of fiction and in any kind of non-fiction where you’re free to have your own voice, sentence fragments are not only permissible—they’re almost necessary.

This is also a good place to say that it’s always apparent when a writer is using sentence fragments (or breaking any other rule) for effect, and when she is using them because she hasn’t quite mastered sentence structure. It’s not something that can be easily quantified—but haven’t you felt it?

5. Paragraphs should have three sentences (sometimes this rule is 4 or 5). One sentence paragraphs should never be written.

If all paragraphs had the same number of sentences, what a very boring world this would be!

***
Here’s a preview of the rules to be broken in next week’s lesson:

1. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition
2. Don’t use contractions
3. Don’t split infinitives
4. Don’t use slang
5. Avoid exclamation points

HOMEWORK:

1. Are there rules I haven’t mentioned that you’ve wondered about? I may cover your suggestions in a future lesson.
2. Share an example of something you’ve written that broke a rule. Give a small excerpt, and tell why that broken rule was effective.
3. Share an example from something you’ve read that breaks the rules.

As always, I welcome ideas for future lessons and other questions you may have about writing in general or about writing for FaithWriters in particular.

And I’ll renew my suggestion that you enter pieces of your writing in the Critique Circle. I know that since February, I’ve critiqued over 40 pieces there, but many days when I go to check, there is nothing new to critique.
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be A Better Writer--BREAKING THE RULES

Postby lish1936 » Sat May 17, 2014 11:18 pm

Jan, rule #4 tripped me up when I wrote an opinion on a Challenge article in the past. Since fragments were on the no-no list when I went to school, I'm just curious as to when they became acceptable; or have they always been and my instructions were for students who were learning rudimentary rules?

The following are examples I've read of sentence fragments:
"Only one way. The sewers."

"Kasia had expected the stench. But the incessant drip. The scurrying rats."

Should there be question marks after the fragments?

Thanks,

Lillian
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Re: Be A Better Writer--BREAKING THE RULES

Postby glorybee » Sat May 17, 2014 11:33 pm

I think teachers must teach the rules--how else will students learn them? And as I've said often, it's only after a person has mastered the rules that she fully understands the most effective way in which to break them.

I think it's important for early writers--elementary students, even middle schoolers and some high schoolers--to be held to the rules. But by the time a student is in late high school--earlier, if they show writing aptitude--students should be taught more about the art of writing.

One of my part-time jobs is as an online scorer of the writing tests that states administer to their students to assess their writing abilities. 99% of the essays I read, even at the high school level, show almost no creativity. Even the ones that are error-free and mechanically correct are formulaic and boring. Strict adherence to the rules does not make for good writers.

That may be surprising, coming from someone who is a grammar stickler and who loves to put a stray comma in its place. There are certainly places where writing should conform to expectations. But given the choice between creativity and correctness, I'll choose creativity every time.

In the examples you chose, (and I hope you got the writer's permission to use them), the fragments are very effective in establishing mood and pace. They aren't questions--more like the quick snapshots taking place in the character's mind as she is apparently looking for a place to escape. The fragments capture that frantic desperation. Long and connected sentences there would be contrary to the mood of that section.

Great questions! Anything I said that you disagree with? Follow-up questions?
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be A Better Writer--BREAKING THE RULES

Postby RachelM » Sun May 18, 2014 2:17 am

Number four made me happy.
I've seen sentence fragments used effectively, but was too afraid to use them in my own writing. I needed a teacher's permission! And I thought I was a rebel. :D

Thank you, Jan! This is one of my favourite lessons too.
My FaithWriters profile: RachelM FW member profile

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Re: Be A Better Writer--BREAKING THE RULES

Postby lish1936 » Sun May 18, 2014 9:35 am

glorybee wrote:I think teachers must teach the rules--how else will students learn them? And as I've said often, it's only after a person has mastered the rules that she fully understands the most effective way in which to break them.



Raising my hand with two follow-ups. This is a difficult concept for me to grasp. Perhaps it's because in my head rules should never be broken, only expanded to include exceptions. And those exceptions should also be taught for one track people like me. :D

1) Are there any rules/guidelines that govern the use of fragments, or is their use totally at the discretion of the author?

When you asked for "something you've read," I didn't realize I needed the author's permission. I've seen so many quotes (including mine) from posts on the Forum. And I wrote an article for a magazine where I included quotes, but the publisher never asked for author authorization. Were we, and are we treading on dangerous ground?

2) Is the need for author permission universal to include books, articles, short stories, news article, etc.?

Jan, I truly appreciate your lessons. Not only do they help me "be a better writer," they also impact my love for the craft.

:thankssign Lillian
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Re: Be A Better Writer--BREAKING THE RULES

Postby glorybee » Sun May 18, 2014 12:57 pm

There are no rules that govern the use of fragments. There might be a suggestion or a guideline, along the lines of not over-using them to the extent that they start to feel gimmicky, or being sure that they're fine with the publication you're writing for. As writers hone their craft and try new things, and see whether or not those things are effective, they start to realize when breaking the rules about sentence fragments (or any other rules) is a good idea.

I believe you've said before that you're not much of a reader, especially of fiction, but reading is really a great way to acquaint yourself with how other writers write. Even if you're not going to commit yourself to reading a whole book--why not check a few books out of the library and scan them for examples of sentence fragments or other writing techniques?

On the other matter, I think it's a good idea to ask for another person's permission if you're going to use their work--and especially if you're going to ask for it to be critiqued. Perhaps they are not ready or willing to have their work critiqued. So when I asked for "things that you've seen..." I was thinking of published works that are always open for discussion and critique.

Still--if you're going to quote a published work--and especially if you're quoting someone's work in something that you yourself are publishing--it must be cited. The publication that you wrote for was wrong not to insist upon that. Even if you did not realize it, they certainly should have.

Some works are in the public domain, but if that is not the case for the piece that you (or anyone else) used an excerpt from, then it definitely should be cited.
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Re: Be A Better Writer--BREAKING THE RULES

Postby swfdoc1 » Sun May 18, 2014 1:32 pm

Here are a few thoughts.

Re: “I” in academic writing. This rule (at least for some disciplines) is relaxing. I very frequently use “I” in my academic writing (probably about 60% of the time). I have never had any of my uses removed by an editor. I think people are finally waking up to two things: 1) using circumlocutions such as “the current author” is just dumb; and 2) using the subject “one” can lead to ambiguity. An example of the latter: “One could object to [or “agree with,” etc.] . . . .” Well, is the author such a “one” or "one" on the opposite side of whatever the debate is?

As far as how far back sentence fragments have been acceptable, although I don’t really look for sentence fragments when I read (although bad ones jump off the page), for some reason I have noticed the use of good ones in some of Agatha Christie’s earliest works, which were published in the 1920s.

As for other possible rules for you to address, Jan, two come to mind:

1. You already mentioned paragraph length, but only addressed one side of the break-the-rule coin: one sentence paragraphs. The rule can also be broken of the other side of the coin: long paragraphs. I’d love to see you address the when, where, how, and why of that.

2. Avoid adjectives and adverbs, and make the nouns and (especially) the verbs do the work. When I think of breaking this rule, I do NOT have in mind the fact that when you GENERALLY avoid adjectives and adverbs, the OCCASIONAL adverb or adjective carries quite the punch. To me that is the benefit of FOLLOWING the rule. Rather what I have in mind is the situation in which an author will indeed BREAK the rule and use LOTS of adjectives and adverbs. Again, you could address the when, where, how, and why of that; but (or “specifically”) you could also address limitations, especially good contexts, for how long one should sustain this technique, etc.
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Re: Be A Better Writer--BREAKING THE RULES

Postby lish1936 » Sun May 18, 2014 3:33 pm

glorybee wrote:
On the other matter, I think it's a good idea to ask for another person's permission if you're going to use their work--and especially if you're going to ask for it to be critiqued. Perhaps they are not ready or willing to have their work critiqued.


Oh, I totally agree. I guess it was a matter of misunderstanding my intent. I was using the quote as an example of my introduction to the "rightness" of fragments and not as a criticism. My question about the question marks may also have been misleading. I asked as information for me and not as an editorial comment or criticism.

glorybee wrote:Still--if you're going to quote a published work--and especially if you're quoting someone's work in something that you yourself are publishing--it must be cited. The publication that you wrote for was wrong not to insist upon that. Even if you did not realize it, they certainly should have.


I may be wrong here, too, but I always thought citing meant providing a source (author's name, etc.) for the quote. The source was cited in the publication.

Is there a difference between quoting and citing?

Your suggestion for seeking out examples of fragments is a good one. Not that I have suddenly developed a love for fiction, :lol: but I have found some in a few non-fiction books I recently purchased.

Examples: "Warmly, but not too friendly." "Except on July Fourth." "Over there by the table." ...
in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Many thanks,

Lillian
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Re: Be A Better Writer--BREAKING THE RULES

Postby lish1936 » Sun May 18, 2014 4:42 pm

Also wondering if the term "fragment" is just a way to legitimize a phrase? :idea: Or Is there a difference, depending on context and usage?

Lillian
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I write even when I think I can't, because I must. :-)

I love to write. Nothing escapes the crush I have on the written word. I'm hooked on words!!

"Let words bewitch you. Scrutinze them, mull them, savor them, and in combination, until you see their subtle differences and the ways they tint each other." Francis Flaherty

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Re: Be A Better Writer--BREAKING THE RULES

Postby Cinnamon Bear » Sun May 18, 2014 8:05 pm

Ah-ha! So, you have been talking about me! Well, at least you are talking about me. Far better than being ignored. :D

lish1936 wrote: The following are examples I've read of sentence fragments:
"Only one way. The sewers."

"Kasia had expected the stench. But the incessant drip. The scurrying rats."


Here is the link to my entry that contains the fragments:

http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article-level3-previous.php?id=47645

In just 750 words, I covered fifty years of Polish history and made a good start at helping people understand the reasons why the United States sent troops over there in April.

I'll give my entry a :thumbs. :D

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Re: Be A Better Writer--BREAKING THE RULES

Postby lish1936 » Sun May 18, 2014 8:19 pm

[Ah-ha! So, you have been talking about me! Well, at least you are talking about me. Far better than being ignored.


Consider it a compliment. :D You changed more than fifty years of my sticking to fifth grade rules. And I really was "talking" more about myself and what I learned.


I'll give my entry a :thumbs. :D


As well you should. I learned a valuable lesson about fragments that I might not have without your entry. So I'll give it two thumbs up. :thumbs :thumbs

:thankssign Lillian
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I write even when I think I can't, because I must. :-)

I love to write. Nothing escapes the crush I have on the written word. I'm hooked on words!!

"Let words bewitch you. Scrutinze them, mull them, savor them, and in combination, until you see their subtle differences and the ways they tint each other." Francis Flaherty

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Re: Be A Better Writer--BREAKING THE RULES

Postby Cinnamon Bear » Sun May 18, 2014 8:31 pm

And thank you as well, Lillian. :D

Cinnamon Bear

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Re: Be A Better Writer--BREAKING THE RULES

Postby glorybee » Sun May 18, 2014 9:32 pm

Steve, thanks for the clarification and the suggestion. If I have room in next week's lesson, I'll add what you suggested; if not, it'll be first on the list for Part 3.
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be A Better Writer--BREAKING THE RULES

Postby glorybee » Sun May 18, 2014 9:39 pm

Lillian, here's a link that explains better than I could the complicated business of quoting and citing from published works:

http://janefriedman.com/2012/01/23/permissions/

I just think that--this link aside--when using someone's work on FW, either as an example or to ask a question, it's best to ask their permission. Some writers here are very new, and critique (not criticism, which is something else entirely) is difficult for them. When you posted your examples, I didn't know whose they were, or if YOU knew the writer, so I thought it best to give the caution.

And I don't think the word "fragment" is anything but a pretty accurate descriptor of an incomplete sentence: that is, one that is missing one of its definitive components--a subject or a verb.
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be A Better Writer--BREAKING THE RULES

Postby lish1936 » Sun May 18, 2014 9:48 pm

Some writers here are very new, and critique (not criticism, which is something else entirely) is difficult for them.


Yes, I see what you mean. :(

Thanks for the link.

Lillian
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I write even when I think I can't, because I must. :-)

I love to write. Nothing escapes the crush I have on the written word. I'm hooked on words!!

"Let words bewitch you. Scrutinze them, mull them, savor them, and in combination, until you see their subtle differences and the ways they tint each other." Francis Flaherty

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