I’m continuing this week with five more rules that you may have been taught in writing class, and places where it might be appropriate to break them. Many types of writing—even non-fiction writing—benefit from intentional rule-breaking. The key is knowing when it’s fine and when it’s definitely wrong. In general, the more formal and academic a piece of writing is, the less likely it is that rule-breaking will be appropriate (and the converse is also true).
Here we go, then.
1. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.
There’s an apocryphal story that Winston Churchill responded to that rule by saying, “That is something up with which I will not put.” While that’s a ridiculous example, it does illustrate the principle that sometimes it’s perfectly fine to end a sentence with a preposition—if the alternative is overly contrived, torturous, or artificial-sounding.
Some examples of sentences ending with prepositions that could be better:
WRONG: I can’t seem to find where my cupcake is at.
BETTER: I can’t seem to find my cupcake.
WRONG: Where are you headed to?
BETTER: Where are you headed?
On the other hand, there are many, many times where it’s perfectly fine to use a preposition; the alternate would be awkward, or too formal, or just ridiculous.
FINE: I have much to be thankful for.
TOO FORMAL: There is much for which I am thankful.
FINE: She was angry about being passed over.
CONTRIVED: That she had been passed over made her angry.
That’s enough examples; you get the idea.
2. Avoid using contractions
This is another rule that’s sometimes taught in high school, especially when students are writing those infamous research papers. And it’s true that in some types of very formal writing, you’ll want to avoid contractions if they will sound too colloquial.
On the other hand—when you’re writing something less formal, using contractions will make your writing friendlier—as if you’re having a conversation with your reader. Take a look at the last sentence of the previous paragraph, where I used two contractions, and read it out loud. Then read it again, substituting it is and you will for the contractions. Which seems more authentic? Even writers of devotionals and other kinds of nonfiction are permitted to use contractions.
One of my main peeves in reading fiction is characters who don’t use contractions. There’s a tiny set of characters for whom that’s appropriate: robots, those who are learning the language, overly uptight people…everyone else should use contractions exactly as often as real live people do.
3. Don’t split infinitives
A little lesson first: for the purpose of this lesson, an infinitive is the “to” form of a verb. To love. To speak. To follow. To juggle.
A split infinitive occurs when a third word—usually an adverb—hops between to and the verb. The most famous example is probably the one heard before every episode of “Star Trek,” when the voice-over says, “…to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
I’ll give you the same advice here that I’ve given for most of these other rules: if the thing you’re trying to write sounds better with a split infinitive—go ahead and split it. There’s really no compelling reason to stubbornly hang on to this rule (see what I did there?).
4. Don’t use slang
Well, at the risk of chewing my cabbage twice—you can use slang in many, many types of writing. Know your audience. Decide if the slang enhances your message or detracts from it. You wouldn’t, for example, use fo’shizzle in your Master’s thesis on Calvanism versus Arminianism. But you might well use slang to humorous purpose in a devotional, or in creative nonfiction, or a memoir, or certainly in fiction and in poetry.
5. Avoid exclamation points
I’m a little bit torn about this one. It’s a rule that I’m quite fond of, because I think exclamation points are far, far too overused. We’re taught in school that exclamation points show strong emotion—but that does not mean that we are to use them for every sentence that indicates strong belief or emotion. Some nonfiction entries are rife with exclamation points, to the point that the reader starts to feel as if she is being shouted at.
While I’m not a strong proponent of the “show versus tell” philosophy, this is one place where it holds true—I’d far rather show my readers that I’m passionate about something by using compelling words—not by using a punctuation mark. The same goes for my characters: I’d rather give them strong words to say than tepid words and an exclamation point.
Mark Twain said this: 'One should never use exclamation points in writing. It is like laughing at your own joke.'
That having been said (and now I’m really sounding like a broken record), there are times when nothing but an exclamation point will do. If it works for what you’re trying to say—use it. I’d recommend that you use them very sparingly in nonfiction (if at all), and only occasionally in fiction, and there only in dialogue, not in the narrative.
But if you’d like to break that rule—or any other rule you may have heard—go for it!
Astute readers will have noticed that in this lesson and the last, I broke all of the rules (I think) that I presented. That was fun. Except I’m itching to delete that last exclamation point.
1. Ask a question or make a comment about anything I’ve presented here (or in last week’s lesson).
2. Give an example of a time when you’ve broken one or more of these rules, and tell why it worked.
3. Give an example from a published work of an author who broke a rule, and tell why it works (or doesn’t work) for you.
If there’s another rule you’ve wondered about, let me know, please.
Have you submitted anything to the Critique Circle recently? I’ve been on vacation for a week, but I’ll be stopping by there daily now (and I know that there are others who have committed to do the same thing.)
Ideas for future classes are always welcome.