Breaking the Rules

Strunk & WhiteAs much as we sometimes pretend we don’t, we love rules. Even the most maverick of writers is receptive to those clever, memorable guidelines, if only to know what to kick against. And the reality is that rules for writing—as for life, let’s face it—are not only abundant but are bewilderingly contradictory.

See, the thing about rules for writing is that, kind of like a yin-yang symbol, they always contain cute little seeds of their exact opposites. Witness the exhortations—from such authoritative guides as Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language—to err on the side of simplicity, to avoid in particular the pretensions of Latin- and Greek-based language in favour of good old Anglo-Saxon English (put simply and memorably: “avoid fancy words”). Plain common sense advice about plain common sense English, right? Well, yes and no. Outside the secret and no-doubt sordid fantasies of botanists everywhere, Orwell’s example of a snapdragon is still in no danger of being superseded by antirrhinum almost seventy years after he expressed his reservations. Similarly, ameliorate and clandestine have their place, even if we are more often inclined to use help and secret.

The thing is, contained within this particular dictum is a received wisdom that is equally worth challenging: that pretension is somehow wrong or unseemly.

Personally, I’d trust a style guide that said something along these lines: “if your intuition (sorry, “gut” if you love the Anglo-Saxonisms) tells you that what you’re currently writing requires some pretension, then don’t shy away from it”. The music of the Ramones was every bit a product of artifice as anything produced by Van der Graaf Generator. And there may well be moments during your writing (for pacing, for rhythmic or melodic reasons) that require the risk of spouting the dreaded purple prose. In which case, I say go for it. Life is risk. Hell, writing is risk. Let the rules take a back seat once in a while. After all, playing soccer in just the penalty area is called “training”; you use the whole field when you play the actual game. Or, more in keeping with my tortured metaphor, that guitar you coveted and saved for and so proudly brought home in its sleek black case happens to have six strings and twenty frets, so why only noodle around on the top E string and the lower three frets every time? You didn’t buy it just to stroke its feminine curves, did you? (Don’t answer that.) And I haven’t even started on effects pedals…

I’m not saying go all Yngwie Malmsteen here—a sweaty blur, shredding ’til your fingers bleed, hands like demented octopi—but the odd flourish might not go amiss. Of course, you’re not Jimi or Jimmy and your attempts will probably fall flat, but what if by reaching, by risking overreaching, you unveil something in your style you weren’t aware of, a capacity for lyricism or poetry, a music previously unsung? I’d say that’s worth the risk, wouldn’t you? Especially since, by baring our souls so publicly, we’re already making complete fools out of ourselves anyway.

Author: David Antrobus

Born in Manchester, England, author David Antrobus currently lives in British Columbia. David also edits and writes in many styles and genres, from nonfiction to dark fantasy. He worked for twenty years with abused teens. You can also find David at his blog and at his Amazon author page.

26 thoughts on “Breaking the Rules”

  1. Yngwie? LOL. Nice post brother. You are eloquent and a gentle lover. Which almost makes up for being a Canadian by choice, eh? You will never have as many handguns as we do, so we'll keep our flatulating participles or whatever, thank you very much.

    Rocket, brother. I jest. And sometimes ingest. And often digest. But I NEVER, NEVER incest. So, now that you are part of IU our relationship is over. 😉

  2. I enjoyed your post, David. I agree that we need certain rules as guidelines, but sometimes those rules get in the way of a smooth flow in your writing. At our writer's group we are constantly reminded that we need to get rid of 'ing' and 'ly' words. And I realize a superabundance of them does get boring, but sometimes eliminating too many of them makes the story stiff and difficult to read. I like your statement: "you unveil something in your style you weren’t aware of, a capacity for lyricism or poetry, a music previously unsung?" Depending on the genre, a poetic or musical quality can enhance the whole feeling of the story. Thanks for a great post.

  3. All good feedback, from Red Bull to angry gummi bears. And yes, it has a good beat, it's true; I'm still dancing around my living room… without a partner… completely alone… which is sad… but… ah, hell.

  4. Elements of Style has always been nearby as I write. However, let the poet in you sing, in your prose, at times when it seems appropriate.

    I agree with you David.

  5. A piece of advice I once got about writing and word choice, and yes I know it is elitist and pretensious, but I love it anyway. 😉 "Who whould you rather bore? Smart people or stupid people?"

        1. Hey, a compliment! Thank you. I'll repay it immediately. Lois, you always manage to couch your considerable wisdom with such grace and poise. Okay, that was my one moment of sincerity for today.

  6. I read something once that adhered to all of the 'rules' writers are constantly having rammed down their throats. It was my first grade reader.

    1. I read a very interesting article by (I think) a linguistics expert, who basically said that Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" has passed on as much bad advice as good, and has had an inordinate and not altogether positive influence on written English.

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