On Writing

Break the Rules for Style

Recently I had the pleasure of editing a high school senior’s college application essay. It’s been years since I’ve seen—or written—one of these, and I did a little research before making any changes to it. The last thing I wanted was to change anything that might affect his voice as a writer and the reaction his words would have on the committee members reading them. Once we discussed the question he was answering and the advice he received from his English teacher, I got started on the edit.

When I was done, we talked more about the changes, and he was surprised with the suggestion to drop a series of words at the beginning of a sentence and instead start with the word but.  Apparently, not using a conjunction to start a sentence has been mentioned a few times in English class. We discussed that to create his style of writing and to emphasize a point a conjunction could be used to start an occasional sentence without the grammar police arresting him. While he understood my point, he chose to keep the series of words and not risk the grammatical error.

Of course, this got me thinking… what rules of grammar or writing do authors bend or break when establishing their writing style? What rules can be broken to define a style or make a point? How can breaking a rule lend a different feel to an author’s writing?

Some rules come to mind, but this is by no means a complete list.

Do not begin a sentence with a conjunction.

It makes sense that an author cannot start every sentence with “And he walked down the road,” “But she carried an empty jar,” etc. However, there are times when starting a sentence with a conjunction makes the statement stronger or even changes the meaning slightly. Take the following narrative, for example:

He was just a man. The townspeople might say differently. His parents might say differently. His wife might say differently. But he was just a man.

The short sentences keep the narrative moving yet tell the reader that each one is distinct and important. If the conjunction were removed from the last sentence, the effect might not be the same.

Do not use comma splices.

I admit that I am not a fan of comma splices. They startle me when I’m reading and I will almost always edit them with a coordinating conjunction or into separate sentences. But there are times when comma splices are used for style.

She was cold, she was hungry, she was tired.

Do not use sentence fragments.

Oh, why not? This is the easiest rule to break, in my humble opinion. Sometimes the human mind thinks in incomplete sentences. Forcing an author to phrase every thought into a complete sentence when thoughts come through in fragments can be stifling. So, read your favorite book and look for fragments. See why they’re included. I bet some very important points can be found in fragments.

Do not use passive language.

Active language instead passive language is a rule as old as the hills. Okay, maybe not that old. But few people will argue that active language is clearer and more distinct because the subject is taking action. With passive language, the subject of the sentence is having action taken upon it, often leaving the action-taker unknown. This can be a great effect in mystery writing when an author wants to keep the perpetrator of the crime unknown while focusing on the victim.

Be grammatically correct.

Grammar is important. But incorrect grammar, especially when used in dialogue, can be an effective tool in creating characters and establishing their emotions in writing. Consider a narrative written in first person. When grammar is less strict or structured, the character can seem younger or more carefree than her grammatically correct counterpart.

Do not split infinitives.

To boldly go where no man has gone before.

Need I say more?

Do not end sentences with prepositions.

It’s a valid point—who wants to read a manuscript full of sentences ending in for, at, above, up, etc. In normal discourse, though, it may be hard to avoid.

I had no idea what he was talking about.

Sure, this could be rewritten as:

I had no idea about that which he was talking.

And if an author is aiming for pretentious and snooty, that’d be the perfect sentence. But sometimes the preposition has to be there.

Do not use contractions.

The rule has historically been not to use contractions in formal writing. So I guess the question is whether fiction is considered formal or not? Is classic literature more formal than a Young Adult novel? I don’t know, but a manuscript without some contractions reads stilted and formal, not something an author wants to convey if she’s writing Young Adult or Romance or Fantasy, for example.

Especially when writing dialogue, contractions make the words flow more smoothly.

Stick to commas and periods and use all other punctuation sparingly.

In fiction, most authors are told to confine their punctuation to periods and commas, use questions marks when necessary, and all other marks sparingly. Marks like colons, semicolons, dashes, and exclamation points should be limited and used for effect. While I agree that the colon has little use in fiction, as long as the marks are used properly—and never overused—authors should check all the possibilities with regard to punctuation. It should blend with the words, adding structure and form to the sentences and paragraphs without taking center stage. When reading a story, if the punctuation is noticed instead of the words, it’s not doing its job.

Do not mix perspectives.

One rule of writing is to pick a perspective and stick with it. So if a story is written in first person, continue the entire story in first person. And for consistency’s sake, I don’t disagree, but there are times when a switch in perspective can tell a different story. Take a mystery novel written in first person from the detective’s point of view. This could give the reader deep insight on his thoughts and feelings from everything from his family to his boss’s wife. Now, imagine that within this novel there are snippets of a creepy third person point of view, written in disjointed and choppy narrative from the sick and twisted perspective of the criminal. That’d be awesome, right?

Do not mix tenses.

Hand in hand with perspective is the concept of not mixing tenses. If a story is written in present tense, keep the story in present tense. However, as readers, we see flashbacks consistently that shift into past or past perfect tense to show something that’s happened before the present moment in the story. Consider a story written in past tense up until the present time in the story and then written in present tense from that moment forward. Would that be something interesting or confusing to read? What about a young adult story written in present tense from the point of view of the character as a young adult and then written in past tense from the character when she is older? Another option could be two different characters writing in different tenses, based on their ages or time of appearance in the story. If the distinctions were made clearly, the shifting of tenses could offer a different feel to each character’s story.

I’m not saying break all the rules. Rules are important. All I’m saying is sometimes some rules can be bent—should be bent—for the sake of style. Otherwise we’re all writing exactly the same way, and that’s really boring.

 


Comments

  1. Who is an endangered species.

    No, I haven’t omitted the question mark. It’s not a question, it’s a statement. The word ‘who’ (in its incarnation as a relative pronoun), along with its gender-neutral counterpart ‘which’, is fast disappearing from most forms of the written word and being replaced by the ubiquitous ‘that’.

    For those who have forgotten, we used to say, for example, ‘the woman who sat on the seat’, or ‘the man who drove the car’. For animals, it would be ‘the dog which ate the rabbit’. But more and more now both these pronouns are being replaced by the word ‘that’ which, as a demonstrative pronoun was never intended to be used in this way. I recently read on the jacket of a book that the contents were intended for ‘people that do not like to drink alcohol’. I work for a government department and ‘that’ appears more and more frequently in place of ‘which’ or ‘who’, particularly when referring to people.

    I realise that a language is a growing thing and that words change and evolve over the years – otherwise we would still be using thee and thou – however it seems a shame to dumb the language down by deleting perfectly good words and replacing them with an over-used substitute.

    And don’t get me started on ‘yous’ as the plural of you, which is in daily use in Australia!

    • Thanks for your comment, Anne. I have seen instances of ‘that’ being used to replace ‘who,’ but I can safely say that I will continue to edit the word back to ‘who’ in whatever manuscript I’m editing.

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