Breaking the Rules (part 1) – by Lin Robinson

Author Lin Robinson

I’ll admit it’s contradictory. This is the first of a series of blog posts on the internet telling you the best way to keep your artistic integrity and sanity as a writer is to ignore all the lame advice you get from internet blogs. I can live with the irony if you can.

The woods are full of the advice I’m talking about. And not just the online neck of the woods either: all those books and seminars and webinars and conferences and retreats and coaches/advisors/mentors/gurus. All full of this stuff you just better not do. Much of it can be discounted because they are just rumors, passed on third or fourth hand by people trying to puff up their blogs and pretend they know diddly about writing. Which a glance at their profiles generally shows they don’t.

Some are myths. And I’m here to dispel some of those myths. Not as a grammar Nazi, and not, as some would have it, as an anti-grammar Nazi, either. Neither anarchist nor antichrist. I constantly hear chirps of, “Oh, then let’s just not have rules, is that what you want? Just open the gates and invite the barbarian hordes in for tea? Write scholarly papers in “textese” with no vowels? WTF LOL”

Well, not really. I just feel that the unexamined rule is not worth following.

It’s very important for writers, especially new writers, to understand what part of this barrage of taboo is actually worth paying attention to, what is myth, and what is something in between. I’ll be ruthlessly debunking some common online writing myths in coming columns here, as well as examining the process by which people pass on writing advice that a little examination exposes as totally nuts.

Let me start off and scramble for credibility with two famous examples of common-sense refutations of writing taboos that–unlike the hysteria about passive tense and “head-hopping” and such–actually have some academic backing.

Prepositions and infinitives aren’t hot button topics of web myth (though I have seen raving, raging discussions on this: anybody who splits an infinitive or ends a sentence with a preposition is destroying civilization and going to hell without benefit of the customary handbasket). I’m using them as sort of examples of a process; famous debunks which I will lay out here for the purpose of disseminating wider debunking.

Which is why I’m writing this: seeing so many frazzled new writers on forums, whipped and cowed, pleading, “Can I please have more than one protagonist in my story?”, “Will the agents really take out a billboard in Manhattan telling the industry to shun me if I use multiple POV?”,  “Will using adverbs really give me AIDS?” My message is to relax and take your cues from successfully published work, not the next speedbump on the disinformational highway.

One of the most famous debunks of grammar kommandos ever was by Winston Churchill. Wouldn’t you know? You might be wondering who really cares about not ending sentences with a preposition anymore, but this is one “rule” that’s far more real than most of these things actually get, a sacred cow stabled in grammar books. As opposed to bans like those on multiple POV’s, which are just made up to mess with your head.

You’ve heard what he said, famously, said, “This is the kind of pedagogary up with which I will not put.”

What you see there is a sentence that is meticulously grammatically correct and utterly stupid. Anybody in their right mind would really say, “This is what I won’t put up with”, “Those are the guys I hang out with”. Very natural. Doesn’t grate on your nerves, does it? And that is the real rule to follow: it reads “right” and works.

Another even more world famous line speaks to another actual textbook rule; that infinitives are not to split. The grammarians insist that if the “to” is split from a verb root, they will bleed, or something. I give you one of the most famous phrases in TV history. Come on Trekkies, what is the mission of the Starship Enterprise? “To Boldly Go…”

Not “Boldly to go”, which fastidiously leaves the clumsy two-word English infinitive undefiled but sounds contrived while the other sounds “right”. Are they are deluged with calls from distraught people, unhinged by the horror of grammar? Reportedly not.

So if actual textbook grammar strictures can be ignored or improved on, what about the ad-hoc rules we get tossed at us by the gurus and bluenoses? Which will bring us to the next column in this series: Are there really any rules?

Author: Lin Robinson

Linton Robinson was born in occupied Japan, schooled in Asia, and is now a 20 year resident of Latin America. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and noted photographer, with credits in top markets. His syndicated columns were cult favorites in the nineties. Learn more at his blog and his Amazon author page.

44 thoughts on “Breaking the Rules (part 1) – by Lin Robinson”

  1. I am convinced that Lin is really a group of people holed up in a bunker some place. That said, whatever Lin is, he knows what the hell he's talking about. A lot of the time. I've missed you robot person. Machine. Ghost. Whatever you are. Good post. Looking forward to the next one.

    And thanks for the knife idea on the Joe Cafe cover – that has worked out well for me. I'm exceedingly wealthy now. I would have said something earlier, but you were looking for more virgin blood, or recharging, or getting a tune up, or whatever it is that you/you guys/the gears do/need.

  2. Hi Lin –

    I had the English degree and now I am relaxing and having fun with fiction. Plus I end sentences with prepositions. It is so liberating. 😉

    BTW you did get me into the digital revolution about a year ago. I have been so busy that I haven't been back to WD.


    1. Hey Cyn! So who's winning that revolution, so far?

      I haven't been back to WD for a different reason. They kicked me off. I consider that a proud badge.

      1. I kinda thought that WD didn't like indie-published writers so I haven't been back. As for who is winning, I made a very small amount last year. This year is exciting because I have more than tripled my payment. It is still in the low area, but I am seeing my books bought at a regular basis.

        Recently I decided to publish a print edition on Createspace. It was a large investment for a new computer and programs. I am hoping that it will be a good investment. I am pretty excited.

        It is really good to see you here Lin.


  3. Thanks, Lin. I cringe when I read posts about strict adherance to all the grammar "laws" your junior high school English beat into you. Some things make sense; words arranged in certain ways can better engage the reader. But there's so much "bad" advice out there. Looking forward to your future posts.

    1. Hey Rosanne,

      Nice to see your lovely avatar. We gotta do that Malta film soon. I think…neither actor nor writer. Intergalactic secret agent! Huh? Huh?

  4. Lin Robinson! Brilliant. Good news for Indies Unlimited; bad news for bullshit.

    I read somewhere that grammarians are divided between prescriptivists and descriptivists; those who dictate to you what you can and cannot do, and those who track the constant changes in a living, evolving language. I know which way I lean.

      1. I look forward to it. I wrote something along these same lines, and I recall reading an amazing takedown of Strunk & White by an actual grammarian, so there are no sacred cows. I'm a great believer in learning both sides and figuring out a middle ground. Which doesn't mean you can suddenly ditch syntax or punctuation or spelling. But yeah, all this is almost disturbingly fascinating to me. 😉

  5. Lin,

    OMG, "The unexamined rule is not worth following!"

    What if I scream GREAT in caps? Will I be thrown out of here?

    Remember how you lit that small fire that became an inferno, taking down Terrence the tyrant on LinkedIn? That was an heroic act!

    I have unplugged from many social network conversations, having learned that most people love the sound of their own voices.

    I don’t have time to read lengthy internal dialogues masquerading as blogs. Self-proclaimed experts haul off and make long lists for others to follow re: “things you must do” and “things you must not do” (in order to be successful, or popular.) No apologies, I am an anarchist, at heart. Carving out my own life with a spoon has worked just fine for me thus far, and I'm not likely to change.

    Looking forward to part two of your post.

  6. LIN!

    Great to hear from you again. As an ex English teacher and graduated English major, I am ready to scream at all the pompous editors that criticize anything they think is passive or fly into a frothing fit at an adverb showing up. I want to say "thank you" for your common sense comments. And if I hear "show" don't "tell" once more, I will shoot someone. There seems to be popular trends in editing at the moment that are getting really tiresome.

    Good to hear your voice.

  7. Here, here, Lin. I worked as an editor for almost two decades, and you wouldn't believe the ridiculous arguments I've had with people over just these two items. I felt similarly bewildered by the huge number of "rules" I started hearing about when I joined RWA. Some of them I think are well-intentioned and even useful, if not taken to extremes. But for some reason, some folks seem bent on doing just that. (Never use adverbs! Really?)

    I look forward to the rest of your series.

  8. I gotta tell you this. I write for myself. Not for the grammar nazis, not for anyone else.

    I've been on a particular writing list for a few years now. Each time I'd mention that I cannot plot for the life of me, which makes me a 'pantser' (one who writes by the seat of her pants – okay sari) I'd get clubbed on the head by the plotters who'd tell me I'd never, ever get published.

    You know what? I'm published now, and doing fairly well, thank you very much!

    1. No need to say "sari", Rasana, pants are nothing to apologize for.

      I'm really glad you got there. I'll have to go see what you decided on that cover. Thanks for coming around.

  9. This is not a grammar rule, per-say, but the rule "show don't tell" which is repeated to all new writers as a mantra, really needs to be looked at in the context of what is being written. Many of the classic literary writers have done a great deal of "tell don't show". I personally think this is a rule that applies more to "action" books, but needs to be tempered when dealing with other classifications especially anything in the literary genre. I have no idea if you are going to discuss this in a future blog post, but it is an irksome quality of many would-be could-be hopeful reviewers to always point out that rule without any sort of relation to the context of what has been written or the point of the story. My pet peeve when it comes to rules and the grammar/reading critics out there.

    1. I actually like the rule, "Show, don't tell." For example, if a well described scene clearly shows a character's high degree of upset, there is no need to add the coda, "He was very upset."

  10. Hi Lin,

    Great post. Looking forward to reading the others next.

    It was drilled into my head 20 years ago when I started writing about the show don't tell rule as well as adverbs. The adverbs one is still huge, being drilled into everyone who is a new reviewer/new author as well. When I first published my book I wrote 20 years ago and published just this past March, a new indie author who was going to review it couldn't because she said she hated adverbs and therefore couldn't read/review it.


  11. Okay, new author, guilty as charged.

    I cannot, and I mean CANnot end anything with a preposition. The grammar Nazis, they did it to me.

    But I begin with And more often than I should. The point is well taken about preposition ending. I will heed this advice next time, next book.

    Linton…you are not allowed to read my second book. You will have entirely too many examples, and good ones, to make your points. Thanks for the advice. Good stuff, and it makes me smile. As an author, I need that. Good thing I don't read about this on the internet, I'd be sunk and not write at all. ~Cara

  12. I have my own writing style that receives compliments on my blog.

    That's what works for me, Lin.

    There are also times when I create a sentence fragment because it works. Creative writing doesn't follow grammar checkers which are a bit more formal and academic.

    I guess it boils down to the writing project. A dissertation would be different than a creative piece.

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