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
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.