Writing has a lot of rules – from the more inflexible rules of comprehension to the far more slippery and opinion driven “rules” of style. While a lot of us had comprehension drilled into us in high school by a stern faced woman with thick glasses and a severe bun of iron grey hair (or maybe that was just me), the rules of style are a lot more difficult to get a handle on.
A lot of writers start out not quite knowing where to go, or trying to find a way to improve their writing, so they read books and articles on “how to write”. This can be a great way to learn and polish your skills, and helps you to try out different techniques to see what works. By doing this, writers will inevitably find their own style. The problem comes when people (especially young, impressionable writers) latch onto a particular rule and think it must be followed at all costs, no matter what impact that has on their writing.
This is why I believe the greatest rule a writer can follow is: you can break any rule.
But with great power comes great responsibility, and this is a very powerful rule. It can do a lot of good in the right hands, but can cause problems if not used properly. So, two things to be aware of when applying this Great and Powerful Rule:
Let me give you some examples of what I mean.
- Know why you are breaking a given rule.
It’s not ok to say “dunno, I just did.”, because that could mean anything. You could be breaking the rule in the wrong place or in the wrong context. Ideally, you should know exactly what rule you are breaking and what your justification is for doing so.
- Don’t overuse it.
Most rules are there for a reason (even style rules that not everyone agrees with). Breaking a rule should be used to add impact to your story, but that only works if it’s used sparingly. If a rule is broken continuously, it not only loses any impact it might have had, but a reader may well write the whole piece off as badly written – even if it actually isn’t.
I don’t like short sentences – I think it makes a story feel choppy, jarring a reader out of the story’s groove and making it that much harder for them to lose themselves in a story. But sometimes this can be a good thing. Sometimes you deliberately want to jolt the reader, if there is something particularly exciting / horrible / dramatic that you want to convey. In this case, having a short, jarring sentence adds impact to your words and draws attention to that moment. In this case, use the Great and Powerful rule and throw the “short sentence rule” out the window.
This can be used just about anywhere in your writing. Everyone knows you have to use punctuation to make your writing readable, but what if you have a character who is gibbering with fright? Sometimes it might be effective to drop all your commas (or even full stops?) and let the sentence run. When the reader sees it out of context with the rest of the writing, they will (hopefully) understand it means the speaker is gabbling.
Always remember that writing is an art form – everyone will look at a rule (especially a style rule) and have a different take on it. That’s why using a forum like this to get many different opinions on a story can be so useful (if frustrating at times). It helps you know what rules to break and when. Because, let’s be honest, rules were made to be broken.