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.
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.
Over 100 reads and no comments--is it possible that every reader totally agrees with everything I've written, and that I've explained everything so perfectly that there are no questions?
Nah, that can't be it.
Okay - I guess I can burst your bubble
I'm thinking about exclamation points in particular. And yes, nine times out of ten, they drive me BANANAS! (but not in FW forum posts - what would a woowoo be without a zillion exclamation points? Really? )
But I'm thinking, in general, about children's books. Picture books and early readers especially. Especially with early readers and leveled stuff of that nature, it seems that the vocabulary you can use is often limited to the point that showing the strong emotion would be more difficult without the use of exclamation points.
Plus - they don't annoy me as much there. Dunno why
I think you're right--exclamation points in children's writing are fine, almost necessary. Many of those books and stories are meant to be read aloud, and the exclamation points work like stage directions, telling the reader how to modulate her voice and therefore adding meaning to the sentence.
They don't annoy me there, either.
I use exclamation points, maybe more than I should, but I try to use them sparingly. I have an entry where I used three, almost for three sentences in a row, but the character was yelling, so a period just didn't seem to work.
http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=45849
I've even use them in poetry at times, to help with flow/rhythm/meter. (or so I tell myself.)
Okay. So I couldn't really find a poem, but I found some that aren't exactly stories and aren't exactly poems either.
In this, I use the exclamation point repeatedly, to convey urgency. I suppose it's oddly fitting, given the Malaysain flight that still hasn't been found. This one does have a POV of an inanimate object, which I know isn't your favorite, Jan.
http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=33192
Isaiah 40:30-31 (NIV)
Allison, the one place where I have no problem with exclamation points is within dialog--and your character was certainly speaking with urgency.
In that first story, I'm pretty sure that if I was editing it, I'd remove them from the "ding dongs," though. A doorbell can't show strong emotion, and it sounds exactly the same if rung by a neighbor whose house is on fire or a guy distributing pamphlets for his lawn care business.
It's a bit different in the second story, because the "pings" are anthropomorphic, and stand for speech. I'd let those be.
Exclamation points are the hot topic!
I overuse them in my forum posts and in emails. It's kind of true to my personality, though; I'm fairly exuberant in conversation. I try to limit myself and often take them out only to add them in again.
When I first started writing, my stories were full of exclamation points. Now I mainly only use them in dialogue and occasionally in my blog.
My FaithWriters profile: RachelM FW member profile
Forum posts and emails (and facebook posts, and other casual, friendly online communications) need not be subject to the rules of formal writing whatsoever. Use them as liberally as you please.
Jan, I'm diggin' these lessons on when it's okay to break the rules. As I've mentioned before, I am subversive by nature and when someone tells me I need to do something a certain way, I have an uncontrollable urge to figure out a way around that. So yeah, I'm loving these lessons. They are so liberating!
Regarding contractions, lately, I've gotten quite fond of them and it's possible I've gone too far into the deep end. I use them for dialog and narrative, and I've gotten into the habit of hooking a contracted "s" onto names, like "Ethan's driving me crazy." And now I'm finding I use them in my daily emails, like when I explain how my friend's been visiting more often, etc.
I've often heard agents and editors complain about exclamation points. In Noah Lukeman's book "The First Five Pages" (a book that's intended to help a writer prevent his/her manuscript submission from getting lost in the slush pile or flat-out rejected), Noah cautions against overuse (or more specifically, misuse) of question marks, exclamation points, and to a lesser degree, parentheses. I'm not entirely sure what Noah means by "misuse," but he says that finding just one of these textual odds and ends misused within the first five pages is enough for the reviewer to dismiss the entire manuscript.
Later in the book, Noah talks about how overuse of exclamation points in dialog can have a melodramatic effect. (Which is not usually desirable). "You mustn't think that because it's the written word, all feeling, all emotion, all real ways of relating, must suddenly be channeled through dialog," he says. "Instead, force yourself to find another way of conveying feeling or emotion." (Demeanor, body language, etc.).
Oh, and I have a question. Is it "dialog" or "dialogue?"
This is not a problem. Having contractions in the narrative adds to your writers' voice. And putting them in emails as you just described isn't a problem, either. Have you read something that says that the 's for "is" is taboo?
I've looked this up in several places. Most seem to recommend "dialogue" for almost all uses, both American and UK. The exception seems to be "dialog box"--those computer boxes that pop up, prompting the user to do something. Wikipedia also says that "dialogue" is used for conversation and "dialog" for text, but that just confuses me.
I'm not a stickler on this one, but it's safest (it seems to me) to stick with "dialogue."
Thanks, Jan. Dialogue, it is.
And no, I don't think I've seen a rule about not using the 's as for "is" but it sometimes feels odd.
Like when the tornado's heading this way and Johnny's so upset and his face's scrunching up like a stick of beef in the dehydrator.
In this example, the only one that I would edit would be "face's" because it sounds like "faces" and it could easily be mistaken for a weird plural with an apostrophe--wrong on two levels (Johnny probably only has one face, and apostrophes don't go with plurals). Rather than risk momentary confusion, I'd change that one to "...his face is..."
I'm all about breaking the rules in dialogue for sure. I think my written dialogue is probably my strongest area of writing, because I strive to make it realistic. I don't like long descriptions of characters (even just reading them annoys me), so I tend not to do so, and I get comments to that effect. I just like for people to come up with their own picture of the scene, so I use realistic dialogue and mannerisms of the characters to describe their personalities.
That said, I do prefer formality to some degree in what would be classified as "literature." I read one page of "The Road" and had to put it down because I couldn't stand how many rules the author was breaking. The editor in me wanted to slash that page with red ink. My mom and I watched the movie, though, so now I can relate to readers who rave about how wonderful a story it is...though I will not agree that it's good literature.
I think we have to be able to draw in our readers. It's important to use familiar language in novels and blogs and social media, as it's a good idea to be "real" in those settings. Leave the extremely formal language for academic papers. Oh, I can write a solid academic paper, but you'd never guess by my writing here.
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Thanks for posting that page, Leah. I think I might have to get that book!
You really drive home the most important point, too--you have to know the rules in order to break them. The writer of your excerpt obviously knows exactly what he is doing, and for what effect. If you were to post something of the same length by a person who uses fragments and eschews commas because they don't know any better, and if you were to ask people "Which of these is written by a good writer?", then I' sure that almost everyone could pick out the "good" one.
And another important point--a writer's voice will appeal to some readers and not to others. There are several well-known books that have been recommended to me by readers who I trust that I just couldn't read because of the writing style.
Thanks for adding to the discussion!
Ugh - how can you stand it? It's like nails on a chalkboard for me!
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