Writing Rules – Simple and True

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

When I taught high school English, I always had at least one student – usually a female – who concentrated more on her presentation than the substance of her work. When the term paper was due, I’d receive a beautiful folder with lots of clip art designs on the cover. I might even get a plate of food representing something from the topic of the paper. Instead of working on the substance, this type of student hopes to wow with “pretty.”

I usually took the paper out of the folder so I could actually read it and comment. I tossed aside the accoutrements to find the meat. Most of the time, I found large fonts in 14 point size.

It wouldn’t have taken much more effort to actually write the paper.

With the advent of easy book publishing programs, anyone can write a book and make it pretty on the outside. And many do. Maybe they’ll sell a few books that way and fool some people for a short period of time. But for lasting effects and success as an author, substance and technique are required. There are the exceptions, of course, and I’m not going to give them further publicity by publishing names and titles. I predict those who find easy success will burn out as easily.

For a few minutes today, I’m going to put on my English teacher cap and tell you something I told hundreds of students each year: You must know the rules before you break them.

For any of the trailblazers in any art form, they knew the basic standard rules of music composition, architectural design, painting aesthetics, and fashion basics. How else would they know how to skillfully break those rules? Some of the classics of literature, such as The Catcher in the Rye, break all the rules. But I bet J.D. Salinger knew what rules he was breaking, and he deliberately created a main character who broke the rules of society as well.

Some rules are best not to break. I follow the conventional uses of punctuation just because it helps the reader understand meaning. But I do start sentences with conjunctions – but, and, or – for emphasis. I write in sentence fragments, again for emphasis. Short. Strong. Powerful. I know the rules, but I break them with intent. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote a run-on sentence in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He was writing about the injustices inflicted on African-Americans in this country and telling his audience why he couldn’t be patient and wait. His sentence went on and on listing the injustices, and the sentence itself becomes a metaphor for those injustices that keep going on and on. Brilliant. Memorable.

Do you break any of the rules of grammar?

NOTE: I’m looking for writers – published or not; Indie or not – to feature on Wednesdays in Writing Whims. Author Wednesday will include guest posts and interviews with authors in most genres and at most stages of their career. Please leave me a comment or email me at pczick@verizon.net if you’d like to schedule a feature. On Fridays, I’m going to post book reviews. If it coincides with an author’s post, that’s great, but sometimes I might just review an old favorite, a new release, or the most recent book I’ve read. I’ll still post about writing tips and techniques once a week, but only on Monday.


16 responses to “Writing Rules – Simple and True”

  1. When I taught in college, I also had students who favored presentation over substance. The glitz of the wrapping only goes so far if the gift isn’t any good. Your examples of King and Sallinger are spot on. Great post.


  2. As a teacher and I writer I agree with you on this post. I’ve tried to make my books look “pretty.” but the content is what’s really important to me and I know I’ve done my best in that regard.


    • Darlene, I know what you mean. So much of what we have to do as writers doesn’t do much for the quality of the book. I look at all these covers with the beautiful people adorning them and know my visions for my work are different.


  3. I love presentation. I will go to great extent to make things aesthetically pleasing, however, I am also a stickler for content. I’m no fool! As far as grammar goes…I continuously break the rules, but I agree, you must know them first. Respect paired with disregard is how one becomes, as you say, memorable. And, (see what I did there?) ;0) do I really need to mention how much I like metaphors?!

    Nice post, PC.


  4. Great post, Patricia. For those of us who make our living with words, your comments ring with particular clarity. We appreciate not just word play but word structure created by generations of writers stacking and stringing words together for optimum transparency and effect.

    It’s funny, though: after all these years writing in the trenches, I find myself uncertain of many traditional rules of grammar. Not because I was not originally aware of them, but because my own style has become an internal rule book. So what happens when you break a rule that is not really a rule? Sometimes it gets you even further from the original grammar that started it all. Fortunately, my dog-eared copies of Strunk and White and The Chicago Manual of Style are always within arms’ reach when the weeds grow too high 🙂


    • Tim, those books have a special place on my desk, too. It’s interesting you mention rule because I feel I’ve forgotten some things as well. Here’s another of my personal rules: I want my reader to understand what I write so every sentence should be constructed for clarity, whether it follows a rule or not. Thanks for stopping by.


    • I’m sure it’s annoying. I don’t quite understand it. Someone recently asked me why he had to edit his own work. He assumed he could send anything to an editor/agent/publisher and all would be taken care of by magic fairies, I suppose. Thanks for comment and glad to know even an editor takes liberties occasionally.


  5. I think in any art form, the masters know the technique in spades. That’s why when they improvise, they create a startling statement as opposed to a muddle. Fine post, Patricia.


    • Christina, Thank you. I agree that knowing the techniques inside out is essential. I love breaking rules so writing gives me an outlet for that part of me:) Glad you stopped by to offer your thoughtful words.


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