Breaking the Rules… on Purpose
By Evan Braun
A few months back, I wrote a blog post about how writers, particularly inexperienced writers, can have a tendency to run away from themselves. Instead of embracing their own unique style, they instead try to emulate others, and in doing so they sometimes come off as inauthentic. The big takeaway from that post: your style is good enough.
And honestly, I can’t emphasize that enough. Often the worst thing you can do is water down the flavour that gives your writing its ineffable je ne sais quoi.
As with anything else that could be described as ineffable, this is a really (really, really) difficult thing to measure. It’s literally inexpressible.
That being the case, here at Word Alive Press we do try to account for it as best we can. If you’ve ever submitted a manuscript to us and received an evaluation form in return, you’ll note that one of categories we offer a score on is “Voice.” It’s not quite the same thing as what I describe here as the ineffable quality that makes your writing uniquely you—in other words, your secret sauce. But it comes closest.
If your book comes across as vulnerable and personal and transparent, you’re going to score highly in “Voice.” And it’s also an indication that your sense of individual style at the very least has solid potential.
However, more than once in recent months, Word Alive Press clients have posed a related question to all of this: what if your individual style also pushes you to intentionally break rules of grammar, things that might lower your evaluation score for “Mechanics”? Mechanics, of course, measures your ability to master the conventions of good writing— language, vocabulary, punctuation, the parts of speech , point of view, etc.
Are you allowed to bend, or break, the rules of good writing in order to enhance your sense of style?
Which is a frustrating answer!
This won’t be super satisfying to some people reading this blog, but the truth is that it’s a tricky subject. Because there are few things that are more important to master than the mechanics of writing. And next month, I’ll be back to explain precisely why this is.
For now, though, understand that, yes, breaking rules of grammar can make your writing stand out in a good way. It can also inadvertently shine a very bright spotlight on your most embarrassing weaknesses—although you probably won’t know they’re weaknesses at the time. That awareness only comes later, as you accumulate experience. Ever had the chance to look back at something you wrote ten years ago only to wince at all the decisions you would have made differently now that you’ve got another decade under your belt?
Rules of grammar are there for a reason, and breaking them can expose your lack of experience.
That’s what it all comes down to: experience. If you’re highly experienced, you will know exactly when the opportunity is ripe to eschew a full sentence in favour of a sentence fragment. Or use unconventional punctuation. Or express an idea redundantly, or repeat a word over and over for added emphasis.
All of those techniques are permissible, given the right conditions.
Inexperienced writers are bad at recognizing those conditions, which is why following the rules—the conventions, the best practices—is the safest bet. It’s very easy to break the rules in a way that accidentally compromises the clarity of your writing—and as I’ve written before, clarity is king.
This may sound like I would give license for one author to break as many rules as they want, while I wouldn’t give the same license to another. And that’s true.
If you’re ramping up to break rules on purpose, all I can do is advise caution. Be absolutely certain that you are having the intended effect. The result could be amazing, or it could be disastrous.
To sum this up, yes, your style is good enough. Also, you probably want to make sure your style follows the conventions of good English writing as much as possible.
Beyond that, it’s a judgment call. And sometimes the only way to make good judgment calls is to have the unfortunate experience of making bad ones.
If you aren’t sure what to do and feel like you could benefit from having another set of experienced eyes on your piece to make sure you’re making the right call… well, that’s what editors are for. At Word Alive Press, we’ve got a range of services available to help.
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. Braun is an experienced professional editor, and has worked with Word Alive Press authors since 2006. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.