The Rules

This afternoon, I was chatting with my parents about the state of my daughter’s spelling. She is seven years old, and is a pretty crackerjack speller for her age. My father, bemoaning his own spelling, says she’s learned rules in school he never learned. I pointed out that my daughter

  • has a fabulous memory; and
  • is completely OCD about rules.

And I remembered trying to learn the rules of grammar in school, and being frustrated, because although I could tell you if a sentence was grammatically incorrect, damned if I could ever tell you why. I learned grammar from reading, not from studying rules.

Fiction writing is a funny thing from a grammatical perspective. The rhythm of the words sets the tone and the pace of the story. Grammatical correctness is a guideline, but it’s not a requirement; and in fact strict grammatical correctness often makes a story read dry and lifeless. To a certain extent it’s not proper grammar that makes good fiction; it’s properly choosing when to ignore the rules.

Part of being a writer – of carving out your own identity – is deciding for yourself when rules work, and when they don’t. I get into a sort of altered state sometimes when writing, and I drift into run-on sentences, and sometimes fragments. Often it needs some editing afterward; but there is a rhythm to the prose that wouldn’t be there if I corrected it for grammar instead of flow. (Whether or not any of these passages are any good I couldn’t say; but I know I’m often pleased with them when I read them later.)

That’s what bugs me about “advice” I see flying around on places like Twitter. “Don’t use ‘because’ – break the sentence in two.” “Never use anything but ‘said’ or ‘asked’ with dialogue.” I can see the value of rules like these if you’re a beginner, if your prose is rough, or if you weren’t raised writing in English. But it’s hard for me to read these sage bits of wisdom without feeling a flash of irritation: Don’t tell me what to do.

The funny thing is that it’s generally good advice. “Because” is overused. It really is better to stick with “said” and “asked” if the alternative is tying yourself up in knots trying for variety. But sometimes…”because” is perfect, and “said” and “asked” screw up the rhythm.

I guess that’s my bias: when I’m writing, I want to be thinking about writing, not about the rules. Editing notwithstanding – prose and poetry are not so different, and it’s rare someone would explain to a poet how they ought to be structuring their sentences.

Having said all of that…I have bad habits. I have structures – grammatically correct and otherwise – that I overuse. Remember that post where I said I’d hire an editor before I self-published? I fully expect that editor to point out a lot of overuse in places where I simply didn’t see it. I fully expect to get defensive, and fall back on the “It’s ART!” excuse, and to eventually recognize that the editor is probably right.

I took a life drawing class once. The instructor was a fairly successful artist. He had moved through a lot of artistic phases, and was currently doing a lot of abstract work in watercolor. He told us that we might look at his current work and wonder at the lack of structure. Why should we learn to draw a realistic human figure, especially from a live model, if “art” meant our own internal interpretation?

He said we needed to learn the rules first, before we could effectively learn when to break them. And so it is with writing.

But you know? I’m still using “because” wherever I damn well please.


2 thoughts on “The Rules

  1. Ha. Yeah, you’re absolutely right. The thing about rules and writing though is that you have to know the rules before you break them. You can break the ‘said’ rule, but only because you know why the ‘said’ rule is there and therefore are not just flouncing through it.

    My trouble is predictable structure. I’m not looking forward to fixing that in my manuscript.

  2. True enough – although I’d say knowing the rule itself is not as important as understanding the effect. Reading dialogue with a lot of different qualifiers (“commented,” “laughed,” “screamed,” “remarked,” “smiled,” “noted,” “hedged,” “mumbled,” “snorted,” boy I could go on forever :-)) is tiring and jarring, and the reader gets jolted right out of the flow of the prose. I’d argue that the break in flow is the issue, although (in this case) variation for the sake of variation is the cause.

    My trouble is actually finishing stuff, so you’re way ahead of me on that. 🙂

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