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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.