The “rules”

So this came over my feed:



Now, in a way, I do agree with her basic premise. Some of the “rules” that people tell you should never be broken are frequently just half-remembered quotes from their middle-school English teacher, and are not, in fact, “rules” at all. They are just prescriptive bits of prejudice, or basic, foundational things that make it easier for kids to learn how to construct simple sentences and paragraphs. Ones that are easy for the rest of the world to understand when they read them.

And since most of the kids that they are teaching are only going to grow up to write memos or shopping lists, those are good ways to make sure that their spouse will buy paper towels, not toilet paper, or that their administrative assistant will post the outgoing invoices AFTER they put the correct addresses and appropriate stamps on the envelopes.

While there are several stylistic things about video-casts that writers who attempt these things really ought to learn before they start broadcasting (such as: write a script, and then edit and rehearse it before you film it…) that I could quibble about, the real problem here is that the writer in this video missed the underlying problems, in favour of picking on specific things that she, personally, doesn’t like to have rules about.

One is that before you break a rule, you need to understand it, and to have mastered the use of it. Breaking a rule, either by accident or mindless whimsy, rarely has good outcomes.

Another is that before you break that rule, you need to stop and think about whether there is another way to get the job done within the rules. Is breaking the rule the ONLY way to do what you need to do? Is it the BEST way?

Or is it just the easiest and least mentally-taxing way?

The actual bottom line here is that if people notice that you’ve broken a rule, you didn’t do it right or for the right reasons.
It’s also not a good idea, when giving advice to new and inexperienced writers, to encourage them to break the rules by holding up people like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens as the examples.

Partly, that’s because those guys were writing a considerably long time ago, and tastes and literary conventions have altered a great deal. We can accept those stylistic differences, because we are aware, when we start to read, that we are doing a literary time-travel gig: we are entering into a mindset we don’t necessarily share anymore.

But it is also partly because these writers were truly great writers – their work has stood the test of time. Assuming that every nineteen-year-old hipster-geek with a laptop and a burning desire to be the next J. R. R. Tolkien is, in fact, actually a gifted writer and not a lazy copy-cat with parents who are willing to continue footing the bill for a few more years: this does a grave disservice to the writing community.

Writing is a craft – it’s a skill you need to learn. And one of those skills is the ability to know the difference between “this is an easy way to get from point A to point B” and “This is the only way from point A to point B.”

Encouraging people to just do whatever, to just string those eighty thousand words together and call it done, instead of learning, grokking, internalizing those “rules” and then finding ways to break them when you need to – that’s a recipe for writing disasters.

Running before you can walk generally results in a toddler with a bump on their head and a flood of tears for child and parent.

Writers are not that much different.


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