Writing Rules Are Meant to Be Broken . . . Sometimes
I have always been more of a rule follower than a breaker. I trusted that someone learned something the hard way and that’s why the rule existed. Other people don’t trust rules and have to experience the consequences of not following them first. One of the (few) lessons I internalized while earning my MFA in creative writing was knowing when to break the rules of writing.
Step 1: Learn the Writing Rule
If you truly want to master the art of writing and create stories that impact your readers, you need to master the rules before you break them. At its core, writing is communication. The rules of writing were designed to make it easier for authors to translate the idea in their head into something a reader can understand.
Writing is only effective communication when the reader understands what the writer is saying. If an author doesn’t know or accept the rules of the written word, the resultant text is something most readers find indecipherable. Instead of fighting the structure, make it work for you. Take advantage of your reader’s knowledge of the written word. Don’t force them to work harder and learn your take on writing. Focus on structuring easy to follow sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. If you make your readers work too hard, they will move on to someone else’s story.
Understand the purpose of each rule. What function does it provide? Complete sentences need a verb and a noun, so there is both an action and something experiencing the action. When a new character speaks, a new paragraph begins to show the reader someone else is talking. Genre tropes became tropes because readers love them. Once you master the rules and understand their purpose, you’re ready to start playing with them.
Step 2: Break Writing Rules
There is a concept known as creative license that allows writers to break the rules. Even though writing is communication, it is also art. Art can communicate an image, a fact, an emotion, a truth, and more. Sometimes a rule gets in the way of conveying a point. In those instances, following the rule will hamper reader’s understanding, thereby weakening the communication between the writer and reader. Authors have every right to break the rule to clarify their message.
The most common example of successful rule breaking I encounter is the sentence fragment. A single sentence fragment in a text can stand out and make a poignant clarification or explanation. A string of sentence fragments in a character’s thoughts can show how they are flustered, rushed, and excited and increases the pace of the scene. They can also be confusing. Like most rule breaking, it depends on the context.
If you believe you have mastered the rules of writing (or a particular one) and come across a situation when it doesn’t quite fit, experiment. Try breaking the rule. What happens to the sentence, the scene, the story? Spend a writing session playing with language to see which rules work for you and your style and which don’t. Have fun. There will be times when technically you are supposed to follow a rule, but breaking that rule will have a greater impact on your reader.
Step 3: Don’t Discard the Writing Rules
Once you start breaking the rules, it’s time to learn one of the most difficult lessons: when breaking the rule doesn’t work. I went to school with a bunch of authors who liked to experiment with writing. Unfortunately, many of them struggled to understand that an experiment isn’t always successful. Just because you know why you broke a rule doesn’t mean your reader understands why.
When you’re experimenting with writing, give your piece to a fellow writer, editor, or reader you trust and have them read it without any explanation. If the rule you broke negatively impacts their reading experience, breaking that rule isn’t working. Your default should be to follow a writing rule, not break it. Each rule break should serve a specific function readers can identify.
Be aware of how frequently you are breaking the rules. The more sparingly you do so, the more impactful each rule break will be. Again, the rules exist to clarify your communication with the reader. When you discard too many at once or too frequently, you lose the structure of writing and your reader becomes confused. Fight that stubbornness we all have for the sake of your story.
An Editor’s Advice on Rules and Opinions
When you begin breaking rules in your writing, look for people who will help you learn how to do so successfully. Some writers and editors are sticklers for the rules. They will point out and advise you to fix every rule break without pausing to consider if it was a mistake or intentional. If you’re trying to follow the rules or still learning, these are the people you want around you. They will help you learn faster than any grammar book or computer program can. However, if you have moved beyond this stage, these people will hamper your progress.
When you’re soliciting feedback, you need to understand the difference between advice and opinion. This goes both for your own personal feelings about your piece and what you hear from others. A good editor or critique partner will say “I prefer complete sentences, but I understand why you went with fragments.” Know your own preferences and get to know those of the people who are helping transform your story into the kind that stays with readers, so you can spot the difference between true advice and opinion.
Because I believe writing rules are actually guidelines once they are mastered, I try to not say never or always do something. This does writers a disservice: They might have the rare situation when that rule needs to be broken. It is up to you as the writer to determine when a rule break is necessary. Now it’s your turn to both use and break the rules of writing to Ignite Your Ink.
What writing rules do you like to break? Share them in the comments. I enjoy challenging the rules of form and point of view. For more articles like this and a free chart comparing the benefits and pitfalls of the different points of view, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.