Breaking the Rules

NotebooksDuring high school, we spent a lot of time learning the rules of grammar and practicing them in our writing. As the parent of a teenager taking English this semester, I’ve been reminded of them again. When I try to picture writing fiction today using the rules she was just given for her formal papers, I start to hyperventilate.

I don’t remember who said it, but there’s a line about it being okay to break writing rules once you know what they are and you’re conscious you’re breaking them.

I break them.  All. The. Time. Here are the ones I decimate each time I write:

Grammar rules:

  • Don’t use sentence fragments. Um, sorry.  Sometimes a fragment, a thought, is exactly what’s needed. Especially when it comes to dialogue.  (See? That’s a fragment right there. Looks fine to me!)
  • Don’t end sentences with prepositions. Let’s be honest…it happens. We speak that way, too. If you write “To whom are you giving the finger,” people are gonna laugh or think your character has a stick up their….yeah.   But if you say “who are you giving the finger to?” you can hear it in your ear.  (And yes, part of me cringes. I can’t help it. But I know it flows better.)
  • And don’t start sentences with the word AND.  *falls over dead laughing*   I try not to overdo it, but I love starting sentences with And. And But.  Because I can.

Writing rules:

  • Write what you know.   I think most writers agree this is a “yeah, right” kind of thing. We write what we want to write. If we’re good at our jobs, we learn about those things, whether it’s how to hotwire a car, wield a flogger, or the best poison to use to kill someone.  (And yes, we all know we’re on some watch list somewhere.  Call it a job perk or a job hazard. Your choice.)
  • You should always plot out your books.  This is nice, in theory. In practice, many of us are pantsters – we wing it.  Though as a pantster I have a general idea of beginning, middle, and end, I rarely know how I’m getting there. I just…write.  Not that plotting is bad – if it’s what you do. But you don’t have to. Work the way that works for YOU.


If you search online, you’ll find any number of “rules for writing” — though many of them give conflicting advice.  And I do like to read them, but I pick and choose what I agree with.  (See? The AND and preposition things again!)

Bottom line for me: if you write a compelling story that sucks me in, I’m not going to care if you plotted it or wrote whatever came into your head, if you start a sentence with And, or if you end a sentence with a preposition.

How about you? Any writing rules to share? Any particular grammar rule you hate seeing broken?


Breaking the Rules — 5 Comments

  1. One of my favorite quotes on excessive adherence to strict grammar is attributed (in several variations) to Winston Churchill, who was himself an elegant writer. The story goes that an editor clumsily rearranged one of Churchill’s sentences in order to avoid having it end in a preposition, and Churchill replied with “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

    Good point, Churchill. While grammar certainly provides a useful guide for composing and structuring language, it can lead to some rather ridiculous results if applied too stringently. At some point we have to consider not just the meaning and correctness of our writing, but also its flow and even its sound. I absolutely agree that good writing – especially in dialogue – should sound natural, and it’s not always possible to make that happen using only the kinds of sentences our teachers diagrammed on the blackboard.

  2. I so agree with you Jodie. I have to restrain myself from starting sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’, and I have a deep love for sentence fragments. And the rule about only writing what you know? If I’d done that, my last book would have been 50,000 words about vacuuming and double entry accounting. Not fun. Great post, Jodie!

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