It’s a contradiction in terms because as writers, we spend much of our time abiding by certain ‘rules’ where writing is concerned, but there is a very good reason why such rules and guidelines exist – to make us better writers.
That said, some rules can be bent and some can, on occasion, be broken. Some ‘rules’ are now considered old fashioned because of the ever-changing way fiction is written, but writers should consider the context of their work before going ahead and breaking all sorts of guidelines – for instance, is the work to be self-published or will it go to agents and publishers for the traditional publishing route?
Self-published novels tend to ignore every rule and the end result is an absolute mess, because there are no quality controls in place and the author hasn’t taken the time to learn about what they’re doing. Traditionally published work, by contrast, has to be vetted and scrutinised by editors, and so some rules and guidelines are important.
You may have heard a lot about ‘rules’, but in essence these rules are not set in stone. In truth, they are the universally accepted standards for writing, which is why we advocate writers stick to them while they learn their craft. When you become published and successful, you can break as many rules as you please. Until then, it’s better to stay with what works, and has been shown to work, since the modern publishing age.
So, which conventions can you safely break without compromising or weakening your writing? There are a few to choose from, but let’s consider the most common ones:
Don’t use Contractions
No one really pays attention to this one, simply because it’s prevalent in every fictional work. We all use contractions – ‘don’t’ instead of ‘do not’ or ‘couldn’t’, instead of ‘could not’. Purists don’t like them because it makes the writing sound casual, and there are some authors who don’t use them, but in essence it’s more of a style thing.
If you want to use contractions, use them. If you don’t like them, don’t use them. Use what is comfortable for you, but make sure you are consistent, whatever you choose.
Never Start a Sentence with a Conjunction
Conjunctions (and, or, but, so, yet, because etc.) are generally used to join two parts of a sentence, for example, ‘John looked out of the window, but the fog obscured his view’’.
There are plenty of authors who start a sentence with a conjunction, which contravenes the general grammar rules you learned in school.
But the thing with conjunctions is that they work well, if used correctly. Notice I started this paragraph with a conjunction? I did so to emphasise the importance of the point, which is why writers use them this way. They can add emphasis, depth, gravitas or drama, depending upon the way you use them, for example:
And now it was time to die.
But everything had changed. Everything.
If you want to use a conjunction, make sure you do so to get the best effect from your writing. A word of caution – use them wisely. Like everything in writing, don’t overuse them.
Don’t End a Sentence with a Preposition
A preposition usually comes before a noun or pronoun to show its relationship to another word within the sentence and usually consist of words such as ‘in, though, on, at, above, near, of, for’. The word preposition describes itself: pre (before) position.
The book is on the table.
The clouds are above the mountain.
The apple is in the trash.
These examples show where the book is, where the clouds are, where the apple is. These are considered correct preposition uses.
Every now and then, however, writers end up placing prepositions at the end of sentences, for example:
This is the reason we write for.
This is the subject I’m interested in.
The name he was known by.
These examples can actually be made stronger by changing the sentence structure and thus improving them:
This is the reason we write.
This is the subject that interests me.
The name for which he was known.
There are times, however, when prepositions are required and the sentence is better with them, so understandably this is a subject of debate. The point is, it’s another one of those grammar rules you probably learned at school, but it’s one that should be tackled with some thought. If the sentence cannot work without the preposition, then use it. If it can be improved by removing it and re-writing the sentence, then do so, but don’t rely on them too much. One good example is William Shakespeare:
We are such stuff as dreams are made on.
It may not be truly grammatically correct, but the effect and emphasis that he wanted works.
Avoid Sentence Fragments.
A sentence fragment is not a complete sentence. If you do a grammar check with Word, you will notice that it will flag up what it thinks are incomplete sentences. But the thing with fragments sentences is that not all of them are mistakes. Some are deliberate and are intended for style and voice, for example:
She knew it was time. Like now.
The cold crept over him. Predatory. Hungry.
She remembered many summers. Such as those of her childhood.
For writers, it’s all about choice and the intended meaning, so if it enhances the narrative, use them. If they don’t add anything to the narrative, then don’t use them and reconstruct the sentences to make them better.
Avoid One-Sentence Paragraphs
This is another one that is taught to kids, but really should be ignored.
A paragraph can, essentially, be any length you want it to be. It can be one word or a hundred words. As long as the point of it is understood by the reader, then a one sentence paragraph is as good as any other.
In Part 2 we’ll look at more grammar ‘rules’ that can be bent and broken in order to create better, more emphatic narrative.
Next week: Some Grammar Rules Can Be Broken – Part 2