Tuesday, December 22, 2009

There Are No Rules (Save One)

Before I get into my reasoning for the post title, I have to give a little personal background.

I've never been the best student in the world. You were more likely to find me goofing off in junior high and high school rather than hitting the books -- I managed to skate through most of my classes with fairly good grades because of how fast I'm able to learn things. I'm not kidding when I say that. Information that some people take weeks to learn I can take in and accurately use within a quarter to half that time. I once wrote a philosophy of religion paper comparing the theories of three philosophers while only having read one paragraph of each document. And it took me 20 minutes to write the paper, whereas my best friend (who was also in the class) took hours to do so.

I tend to be either the student teachers love or the one they hate because I get the material without even really trying. I'd think someone like me was annoying as all get out were I a teacher. Which I don't plan on ever being, much to my mother's dismay (mom teaches ESL to adults).

So here's my theory when it comes to writing: There are no rules.

Let me elaborate. There are dozens of style guides in existence for all forms of writing -- medical, academic, fiction, journalistic, technical, etc. -- the list goes on and on. Then there's disagreement within the same style guides depending on which edition of the guide you follow. For example, The Associated Press re-issues their style guide every year, and every year at least one thing changes. That means if you have a style guide from four years ago it's basically worthless.

The vaunted "rules" that we hear about in school aren't, in point of fact, rules at all. They're conventions that have been agreed upon by teachers and grammarians nationwide and spoon-fed down the line to the students. A perfect example is the axiom to "never start a sentence with the word 'and.'" This is a fallacy because you can start a sentence with the word "and." The problem you run into is that it's hard to make the sentence complete when you start it with words like "and" or "but." But you can do it. See? One so-called rule shattered.

You really start getting into mass confusion once it's understood that all our "rules" exist because 60 percent of the English language is derived from Latin, a language that is so rules-based it's ridiculous. Because X, where X is a particular grammar rule, is an impossibility in Latin, it's considered bad form in English. Then you find out that Latin didn't actually have any punctuation. No periods. Or commas. Or semicolons.

What, you may ask, was the result of all this linguistic theorizing? A healthy dislike of grammar textbooks for one, and the realization that I can edit a whole lot better by simply reading the text out loud rather than asking myself if I've followed all the "rules" in the sentence. Parts of speech? Not my forte. Do I know what a compound modifier is?* Or a gerund? Can I explain the past participle form and when to use it? Nope. Not a single one.

Does lacking that knowledge make me less of a skilled writer? I don't think so. It certainly doesn't make me any less of a well-versed editor. In fact it probably helps, because I edit from an emotional and not technical standpoint (I had to retake the SAT for a tutoring position at one point and I disagreed with several answers they said were right). And emotional editing is what you need when it comes to fiction because really, who cares if it's technically correct but doesn't impact the reader?

So all the rules that we've been taught in school of what makes writing good can be thrown out the window right? Maybe. The text still has to be understandable, after all. There's also one rule, and only one, that you can't break when it comes to fiction.

What is it, you ask? Well that's an easy answer.

Tell an interesting story.

P.S. Don't forget about the Ten-Word Novel Contest! Only nine more days to enter, and the competition's getting fierce!

P.P.S. To Adam Heine -- I finished Air Pirates and will email my critique to you by Christmas Eve at the latest.

* I do know what a compound modifier is, but only because I learned that while working as a copy editor at a newspaper.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Having an interesting story, and telling it well are two very separate things, I think.

Telling a fantastic story in a way that makes it accessible to the reader is part of what the conventions are about. But I agree, that the rules are just guidelines and you need to bend them to your will, in service of telling the story.

As the saying goes, you have to know the rules to break them.

I couldn't define a dangling participle, but that ability to "hear" good language is born of vast amounts of reading. Being steeped in language, our integrating brains sort, store and process it all. We know beautiful language when we see it, just as we know art (and it is still subjective).

I just came across an interesting article about how our brains learned to read. When the brain was evolving, it didn't have anything to read - which is why we have to teach children to read, as opposed to speaking, which they are innately programmed to learn. But the brain excels at taking in vast amounts of information and synthesizing it into meaning . . . and story.

The words may tangle, but the story has to be there, for us to find and to captivate us.

Matthew Delman said...

Excellent points, Susan.

I'm also of the belief that we need to change the question of what makes good writing from "is it right?" to "is it easily understood?"

I've had people refuse to change a sentence because it was technically correct, even though you had to read the thing half a dozen times to understand what they were trying to say.

Deb said...

Thanks for this post, I couldn't agree with you more. I once had an English teacher ask me to critique a series of lessons she was teaching. When I told her they didn't work for me, she agreed that it was ridiculous to try and structure creativity. She also pointed out that students who are not natural writers require the structure...

Anita Saxena said...

I remember when I was working with Vicky Covington (published author in the 80's and early 90's) on my first novel and she told me point blank to throw out what I had learned in school. At first I was skeptical because she is a floopy character. But soon I realized she was correct. Grammar rules (for the most part) go out the door. She also made me feel better about my ineptness with commas. Her famous saying, which I will never forget, was "Commas are a mystery to me."

Rick Daley said...

Some rules can be bent, others can be broken. OK, Morpheus said it first in THE MATRIX, but it's no less correct.

I break rules when I write. Most of the time I know that I am breaking them, and I do it because I think it improves the rhythm or clarity of my writing. You can usually tell when someone is breaking rules to adhere to voice, versus someone who breaks rules because they are clumsy writers. And I admit that at time I am guilt of both. And I just started two sentences in a row with "and."

In Latin, verbs are supposed to be at the end of a sentence, providing a form of a period.

Ancient Hebrew was an even tougher language, as it had no punctuation, but also no spaces between words.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

I have to agree with you, Matt. I'm an English teacher, so it may surprise a few that I'm going to land with you on this one, but you're right. Two of the best writers I've ever taught came out of one of my at-risk classes. They were placed there because they were failing English due to conventional errors (the boy was lucky to spell his name correctly!)

However, they wrote fabulous stories. My girl actually finished 11th in the nation (out of over 10,000) in the Guideposts essay contest. They both won several contests that year for their writing. How is this possible if they couldn't spell etc...? Editing is not part of the initial writing process.

It is VERY IMPORTANT to edit and edit well. But that comes AFTER we have a complete story. Patricia Polacco is severely dyslexic and din't learn to read until she was halfway through elementary school. Wilson Rawls threw his first draft of Where the Red Fern Grows in the trash, because he was embarrassed by his conventions.

Writing comes first. We can clean it up later (often with lots of help), but if the story isn't there, no amount of editing can turn you into a good storyteller.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Okay, so here's my teacher perspective.

I teach those conventions- don't start with "and", don't use fragments, run-ons are bad, and so on. I do that because students don't know how to break the rules appropriately. You have to know the rules to break them.

So, yes, Matt, I agree with you. Rules can and often, should, be broken. But most fifteen-year-olds can't break them properly. I wish they could- it would make grading essays a whole lot more fun!

Matthew Delman said...

Deb --

Structure is very good when you're just starting out, or when you're not as well-versed in the topic as someone else.

Rick --

Another fun rule is "don't split infinitives." The reason for that one is because each infinitive in Latin is one word -- so it's impossible to split it because then the word's spelled wrong.

Shannon --

When I worked on the copy desk for a newspaper, I decided that I'd rather have someone who was a crappy writer and a stellar reporter than someone who was a stellar writer but a crappy reporter. For the exact reasons you mentioned here too.

The writing you can fix. But if the concept/facts aren't there, no amount of help will be worthwhile.

Stephanie --

Yeah, I couldn't break the conventions correctly at 15 either. Then again, I also didn't have anyone telling me I could break them. I had to find that out for myself.

L. T. Host said...

I don't have much to add to this discussion. Maybe it's having eight days' worth of work to get done in three. Or maybe it's because everyone else is brilliant and already said exactly how I feel. I think it's a combo of the two.

Anyway, very good points-- that's why I don't listen to a lot of the "rules"-- because there are exceptions to all of them. Yeah! Adverbs! Woooooooo!

*Ahem*. Anyway, back to work for me.

*rushes off*

Adam Heine said...

What an unexpected and pleasant post-post script. I look forward to your thoughts, sir!

I, too, totally agree with this post. And I really like Rick's comment: "You can usually tell when someone is breaking rules to adhere to voice, versus someone who breaks rules because they are clumsy writers."

I think that's key. If you break a rule, it should be intentional -- because it works better, not because the rule is constricting.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

My husband gets my goat by telling me grammar rules are not set in stone. GRR.