Should Writers Follow the Rules?

Nat Russo Basics, Publishing, Writing 31 Comments

There’s a commonly held belief among new writers that the rules are made to be broken. I agree to an extent, but if you’re an unpublished writer you break the rules at your own risk. Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@NatRusso)  know how I love my “writetip” autotweets. Here’s another one of my favorites:

Don’t break a rule until you understand it. Learn the rules of grammar…then break them like a pro. But start with learning.

Continue past the jump to discover how this applies to not only grammar.

 
 

The Rules Are There For A Reason

The most common contrary response I receive to my autotweet is “Sorry, but if I disagree with a rule I’m going to break it. This is horrible advice. Unbelievable!”
 
I can feel the anger and frustration through the Twitter client. I can imagine the unwritten ending to that tweet: “You should be flogged/evicted/bitten by a rabid squirrel/banned from the interwebz.” 
 
There’s a problem, though. I never mentioned anything about agreeing or disagreeing. I wrote about understanding. You must first understand an idea to properly disagree with that idea. Otherwise, what are you disagreeing with?
 
Imagine coming across a sign that reads “Do NOT use profanity at any time.” The average person may react by thinking “Yeah, like hell. No one’s going to tell me how to speak.” So they walk up to the sign with a smile on their face and yell “To hell with your $#@%&^% rule!”
 
And a group of trained attack rabbits promptly emerge from the rocks and tear them apart.
 
Oops. I guess the rule wasn’t made to restrict people. It was made to protect them.
 

Rules Provide A Framework For Improving Your Craft

Every craft has a set of rules and conventions that were developed under a lot of trial and error. My day job, software engineering, is one of these crafts. I’ve worked with many junior engineers in my career, and many suffer from the same malady: They confuse creativity with deviating from convention. But all they accomplish is writing code that is difficult to understand, impossible to maintain, and full of bugs. Why? Because they didn’t bother truly understanding the conventions before dispensing with them. 
 
I’m going to cherry pick a few conventions to discuss.
 

Grammar

The importance of grammar can’t be overstated. Without it…my sentence became a tangled messes upon them which wasn’t incomprehensibility, yet has impacts never the same.  …See what I mean?
 
Grammar is a societal convention that allows for clarity and specificity of communication. The very purpose of writing is communication! Violating the rules of grammar with impunity can be likened to speaking a different language from that of your listener: they’re not going to understand you. So what’s the point? If you don’t have a recognizable name in the world of publishing (to a large extent, even if you do) pick a style guide and be consistent. 
 

Story Structure

Humanity has been telling stories since the dawn of communication. We’re hard-wired to look for certain story elements, and when those elements are missing we’re left confused and unsatisfied. 
 
Mastering story structure allows the writer to tap into that sense of story that is present within our very humanity. And like a master composer who evokes strong emotion with the rise and swell of certain chord progressions, your story will reach into a person’s soul and move them. Isn’t that what this is all about?
 
I can hear it now: “But the lack of structure is my story’s structure, man!” 
 
Back to the master composer for a moment. Isn’t there a difference between listening to an elementary school band, which is plagued by sour notes, and listening to the London Philharmonic playing a piece that uses dissonance with purpose? Which is more likely to hurt the ears, and which is more likely to tap into your emotion?
 
Are you the Philharmonic, or are you the school band? I don’t know, but you do…if you’re being honest with yourself.
 

Manuscript Formatting

This goes back to communication. The manuscript is the medium upon which our story is told. We’re not filming it, and we’re not recording it in the spoken voice. We’re presenting it to other people on pieces of paper or in electronic documents.
 
I’ll keep this short: manuscript formatting is the last place to start violating industry norms. Doing so is a quick way to land in the rejection pile. Manuscript format lies outside the scope of this article, but I encourage you to research it. Use a tool like Scrivener that allows you to write in whatever format you like but “compile” your text in industry-standard manuscript format. 
 

Editors/Agents Read To Reject, Not Accept

Wow, that’s a scary thought! You mean these people I’m submitting my manuscript to are trying to reject me?
 
That’s precisely what I’m saying. And it makes sense when you think about it.
 
Place yourself in the shoes of an editorial assistant. These are the first-line-of-defense people that will see your manuscript. They have hundreds of manuscripts to pore over, but most of their day is filled with meetings and lunch appointments, so most of the reading they do has to take place on their own time. Worse, they know before they begin that 90% of what they read is going to be crap. Any excuse they can find to toss your manuscript in the garbage the moment they crack it open allows them to check it off their list and move on. It’s simply the most efficient use of their time. How do they accomplish this?
 
Many develop “exclusion lists” that contain elements which, if present, result in immediate rejection. Guess what they base these exclusion lists on? If you guessed “The Rules” then you guessed correctly. A single misplaced comma, a single misuse of that/which, a single extraneous piece of dialogue, a single superfluous word…each of these alone is enough to reject your manuscript without so much as turning to page 2. It may even happen in the first paragraph or sentence.
 
Unless your writing is absolutely brilliant, your odds of rejection are extremely high if you fail to follow industry standard rules and conventions. Violate the rules if you must. But only you can know if the risk you’re taking is calculated or based on nothing more than a desire to be different.
 
If you first know and understand the rules, then after carefully calculating the risks you can violate them with purpose and masterful artistry. If, on the other hand, you jump straight to “violating”, then you’re running along a ledge without even knowing a ledge exists.
 
What are some of the rules you violate the most? Have you ever made a purposeful decision to violate one? I’d love to hear the story in the comments section below!

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing/gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 31

  1. Absolutely fantastic post! As both a writer and a teacher, I see the value of learning and understanding the rules.

    I’ve never heard anyone put it so concisely. I love your comparison to the London Symphony.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! It’s amazing how much resistance and hostility I get in response to some of my auto tweets. I don’t think a lot of up and coming writers understand just how much rejection they’re facing, especially with the publishing industry in turmoil right now. The industry is not very keen on taking risks these days.

      Incidentally, I love your sci fi questions of the day!

    1. Thanks, James! I’ve culled the information from various sources, but I ultimately switched entirely from Microsoft Word to Scrivener. Scrivener allows me to write in any font family, size, etc, that I wish. There is a “compile” function that takes whatever I’ve written and outputs it in industry standard manuscript format. I strongly recommend taking a look at Scrivener if you haven’t already.

  2. “Don’t break a rule until you understand it. Learn the rules of grammar…then break them like a pro. But start with learning.”
    Brilliant quote! There’s a big difference between breaking the rules because of ignorance and breaking the rules because you think there’s room for improvement.

    1. Thanks, Michelle!

      I see many high school writers point to masters of their chosen genre and say “See? THAT person didn’t take your advice, and look at how many books they’ve sold!” They overlook the fact that those writers became experts in grammar and composition long before they started deviating from the norm.

  3. Totally agree. Inexperienced writers need to realize they are not in a position (yet) to pass judgment on rules they’ve not mastered. Dunning and Kruger published important work on this. (Look up Dunning-Kruger Effect.) Basically, the less competent you are at something, the less likely it is you have the skills needed to recognize how incompetent you are, which means you’re likely to misjudge (vastly!) your own misunderstanding (or lack of understanding, I should say). It takes a great deal of experience to recognize legitimate opportunities for rule breakage. Until you’ve become an accomplished writer, you should exercise great restraint with regard to breaking Leonard’s Laws, for example.

    Very good post.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing the link, Kas! More reading material for me. 🙂

      I’ve heard of the effect you mentioned, and as a senior-level software engineer I can corroborate it holds true in my profession. Until you achieve a certain level of mastery, you simply don’t know what you don’t know. It can be very difficult, not to mention frustrating, to explain this to junior engineers.

      To borrow a saying of one of my coworkers, we all want to think we’re unique little snowflakes and the rules don’t apply to us and our specific situation. But the masters understand that the rules were created for very good reason, and only very good reason should violate them.

    2. I was just thinking of the D-K effect in reference to grammar school band vs Philharmonic, “You know which you are.” lol NO! NO THEY DON’T! THEY THINK THEY ARE THE PHILHARMONIC EVEN IF THEY HAVE NEVER PICKED UP A WORD-PROCESSOR! And they (meaning people who know just enough to think they know everything) will argue vociferously against any suggestion that they learn to play scales before they book Carnegie Hall.

  4. Great post, and “Know the rules before you break them” has been one of my mantras for years, but I do have one quibble. As an editor of many years, I won’t reject something just because a single comma or whatever is off (though there are undoubtedly editors who =are= that draconian), but if it becomes a pattern that turns the MS into word salad? Yeah, that will do it. There are writers who can turn language on its head and make it dance, but they’re rare, and most people who think they can do it, can’t.

    PS – I hate to nitpick, but it’s “pore over.”

    1. Thanks for catching that!

      I read a book titled “The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile”, by Noah Lukeman. He mentions that not only will many publishers find a way to reject a manuscript within the first five pages, but many times within the first five paragraphs or even sentences.

      You hit the nail on the head. Many writers think they can masterfully sidestep certain rules or conventions, but it often comes across as awkward at best.

  5. Don’t know if it’s a ”rule” but I never write in chapters…more in episodes, with the story progressing via the 3/4 narratives. I have tried chapters, but find them too restricting. Comments have been made. *shrug* It makes for a fast-paced narrative, and I don’t get bored when writing.

    1. I say ignore the comments!

      In my opinion, chapters in fiction serve 2 purposes (and I’m tempted to say *only* 2 purposes, but as I learn something new every day…)
      1. To present the material in bite-sized chunks for middle graders (in fact, you probably won’t get a middle-grade publishing deal without chapters).
      2. To control pacing.

      For adult fiction, chapters are purely a pacing tool. But they’re not the ONLY pacing tool. So if you’re writing adult fiction and you have a handle on pace management, no need to chapter your book if the story doesn’t call for it.

  6. Love your articles, English is not my first language so writing and following grammatical rules isn’t exactly easy for me but is a work in progress, I love to write though and I find the more I read the better I can write, your articles are very interesting and helpful, thanks a lot.

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words, Maybelis. Reading and Writing feed off one another in a wonderful way! If I can ever answer any questions, just let me know.

  7. Great article, as always Nat. Writers need to remember that you have to give the reader a reason to continue reading your work. Brass them off by being cute with formatting and/or structure and you’ve just lost your reader. Better to have a reader get to the end and hate it because it just wasn’t their cup of tea rather than to have them quit after 30 pages because it was unreadable.

    1. I absolutely agree. The deck is stacked against us as it is. You have to assume your reader begins in a state of confusion. It’s up to the writer to throw that reader a lifeline. Mucking about with things that should remain relatively constant just muddies the waters.

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  8. Last week, I was explaining to a beginning writer friend why you don’t do such-and-such. She said, “But best-selling writers do it.” And she pulled out *Twilight* to show me an example of a particularly inane show-don’t-tell violation.

    I valiantly overcame the urge to pull my own hair out in handfuls.

    Mind you, I have begun to violate rather egregiously the “never start a sentence with ‘and,'” rule. Mea Culpa.

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      It’s definitely common among new writers to say “Well So-and-so does it!” It’s true, they do those things. But they do those things because they’re masters of the craft who have a specific outcome they’ve carefully architected.

      I’m all for violating rules when it achieves a carefully executed artistic effect. Unfortunately, most of the “rule breaking” I read these days happens out of ignorance rather than crafting.

  9. I think breaking the rules is one of the most effective and creative things to do… provided you understand and muster the rule perfectly, and so not only you know which effect breaking the rule will cause, but you can also control that effect and lead it to a particular result.
    Not a rookie activity, if you ask me 😉

    Didn’t know about the Dunning-Kruger Effect but, oh my goodness, that’s so true!!!

    I can’t think of any rules I’ve knowingly broken – well, apart from starting paras with ‘and’ like Melissa above, 😉 – but I encountered a very powerful use of the ‘breaking the rules with a purpose’ example.
    It occured in ‘The Hearthsong of Charging Elk’ by James Welch. Charging Elk is a Lakota man stranded in France after being forced to stay behind of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show because of illness. In the first part of the novel, he tries in any way to find the Show and go back to America. The first three chapters are in a very deep POV focused on Charging Elk. You learn all his deepest thoughts, hopes, fears, all in his unique voice, that of a Native American in a world that is completely unfamiliar to him. By chapter 3, Charging Elk is arrested, but a journalist goes to meet him and succeeds in having him freed. Well, halfway through ch 3, while still in Charging Elk’s deep POV, suddenly – and I mean completely out of the blue and in the same para – the narration shifts to the journalist’s POV, to his voice, to his mind frame, to his being a European who knows nothing about Native Americans.
    I’m telling you, it was shocking. And of course, everybody will tell you never to shift POV in the middle of a chapter because it will confused the reader. I think confusion was exactly what Welch was after. It mimicked Charging Elk’s confusion in suddenly realising there was a completey new world beyond the one he knew so well. By that shocking shift of POV, Welch let us reader experience Charging Elk’s confusion rather than describe it to us.
    It was absolutely powerful!

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  10. Once again, excellent article. I break some rules. I occasionally write a sentence fragment, for example. Fortunately, I’m self-published and don’t have to explain to an editor why I did it. I DO sometimes have to ignore an editor’s advice to change ‘all right’ to ‘alright’ or create a comma splice, so it’s also fortunate I know the rules.

    Nevertheless, your point is well-taken and I appreciate having been pointed to the article.

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      Thank you for stopping by, Jessa! I’m glad you liked the article.

      It’s amazing how much bad advice is floating around, even from editors. I think a good editor should ask a lot of questions. If they’re concerned about a particular usage issue, they should have a conversation with the writer to determine what the writer is trying to achieve. That will tell them whether the usage was a creative deviation from the norm, or whether the writer simply doesn’t understand there’s a better way to achieve the effect.

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