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 I agree to an extent, but if you’re an unpublished writer you break the rules at your own risk.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.
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.
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.
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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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.