Writing can be a personal expression of creativity, experience, knowledge, expertise and connection. It’s an art and a science where the practicality of clarity and crisp communication converge with the creativity of inspiration and flow.
Rules abound in the craft of writing, and many of them deserve respect. I love the structure of rules in life and especially love rules for writing. I spend many hours reading about the craft, the rules and how the writers whose work I love approach their writing.
My reading preferences reflect my love of writing. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, the classic on the craft of writing, sits dog-eared and well-loved at the top of my stack of books I re-read when I need inspiration. The day the new AP Stylebook comes out is always reason for celebration for me. My new copy already has sticky notes clinging to the pages. And doesn’t everyone still have their high school grade grammar book?
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) the writing profession doesn’t have formal accepted practices governed by some appointed board like the accounting profession does. Sure we have our rule books and style guides, but these vary by profession, publication styles and audience. Given these often confusing rules (or lack of them), it’s easy to get sloppy in writing and editing choosing to think “well I know that’s right in one style book anyway.”
I look at writing, editing and proofing as a puzzle. Every piece should fit together perfectly at the end, but different approaches can get to the same final product. It’s the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation that underpin the structure writers tend to adhere to regardless of their approach.
But, do they? Sometimes rules should be broken. Whether it’s because of voice, audience, style or maybe just a little rebellion, maybe some writing rules have more flexibility than others. In today’s world, the spoken word and the written word are more closely related than ever. There seems to be an increasingly acceptable level of fudging on writing rules as we work toward that goal of clarity and flow.
After many years of reading, writing, editing and proofing, I’ve come up with my short list of five rules that are gospel to keep and four rules that are OK to ignore sometimes.
The gospel rules (which in reality translate into my pet peeve editing issues)
1 – “She is going with Mary and I” will never be correct. Ever. For any reason.
2 – There is no acceptable use for a misplaced modifier or a dangling participle. They are insidious gremlins that often go unnoticed in writing because our ears are so accustomed to hearing them spoken. “Opening the door, it was time for everyone to enter.” In the spoken word you know exactly what the speaker means. In writing, it is fingers on a chalkboard.
3 – Spelling is spelling. Period. Creativity isn’t an option in spelling.
4 – Apostrophes indicate possessive not plurals. Merry Christmas from the Smith’s. The Smith’s what?
5 – The serial comma isn’t necessary, but I’m not going to touch that word nerd debate in mixed company. This provokes as much controversy among writers and editors as the preference of vinegar versus mustard sauces does among BBQ aficionados. Just decide how to use a comma in a series, stick to it and make sure your writers do the same.
Then there are some rules writers can fudge on a bit. We all have our own. I’ve already used a few in this piece. My personal guide for breaking a writing rule is to do it consistently, deliberately and with thought.
1 – Sometimes it’s OK to end a sentence with a preposition. The old example of something “up with which I will not put” is awkward construction, no doubt. In today’s world that kind of writing sounds stilted and overly formal. Know your audience and use a preposition at the end of a sentence if it’s something you can live with.
2 – Sentence fragments and single word sentences can sometimes help make a point. Admittedly this loosening of a rule is partly due to today’s texting society, but sometimes a fragment can add emphasis in more informal writing. Right?
3 – Starting a sentence with a conjunction can improve a transition, comparison or bridge between ideas. But know when to use this construction appropriately and use it sparingly.
4 – The rule of split infinitives may just be outdated. This rule has been around since the dawn of time…or at least the dawn of Latin. As long as the meaning is clear, it’s OK to occasionally split the infinitive.
So now, I’m off for some light reading in the Elements of Style. This newest edition has lovely whimsical illustrations by the artist Maira Kalman. Her cover art of a self-satisfied basset hound caught my eye when I first saw the book at Litchfield Books. And while I do love the art, the juicy rules and vibrant writing commentary keep me turning (and scribbling on) the pages.