Eugh… “Rules.” Just the word makes me think of similarly off-putting things, like peas or gym class or t-shirt armpits yellowed by old sweat stains. I prefer the more pleasing word “guidelines.” Ahh, that’s better – like a cheerful garden path leading you towards better writing. Or that wise old word “advice,” with its wizard beard and smell of vintage paper. And let’s not forget that perky lil word, “tips!”
Rules are smart, but no rule/guideline/advice/tip is an ironclad absolute.
Here’s an example of a law I break every damn day: Don’t edit as you go.
I get why this helps people who get so caught up in editing they never move on. They agonize over every word until it’s perfect. Going back over their own work makes them immediately throw up their hands and give up. I’ve struggled with this before, so I understand.
I’m now in a place where I enjoy reading back over my work, and editing gives me a satisfying feeling of “ahh, there.” Sometimes a big issue pops up and I get antsy until I resolve it. Even as I write, I’ll pause to re-think, re-word. Not doing that makes me feel all kinds of irk, so editing as I go actually helps my productivity. I don’t do this with every sentence, and I push myself to carry on when a scene’s not going well (with notes to work on later). That’s a valuable practice. But other times I quite enjoy the tweaking. I think it comes down to two questions: Is your editing hindering you? Do you like it? If the answers are No and then Yes, by all means, edit away.
Now, let’s get away from methods and more into mechanics.
Here’s a VERY GOOD law that still needs breaking on occasion: Show, don’t tell. (Related: the Avoid Exposition law.)
Why this is important 99% of the time: Showing offers the reader the up-close experience, the chance to LIVE that information via the narrative. Being told is not as convincing as seeing it with our own eyes.
Buuuuuuuuut, what happens when certain info is necessary, but showing it would require wedging in some drawn-out, completely transparent, “hey side character, why don’t you inform me about such-and-such!” kind of scene? In cases like this, the showing actually becomes a hindrance. It flows better if you just give the exposition quickly and move on.
Here’s another one I have purposely broken: Don’t use passive voice.
Why this is important 99% of the time: Active voice gives the prose a sense of muscularity, and the effort to un-pacify the sentence forces you to create a more interesting one. For example, I could say, “It was cold.” The only way to active that up is to give it more: “I rubbed my arms against the chill,” or “I felt the cold even through my heavy coat.”
But on occasion I deliberately choose the passive voice. (GASP! Blasphemy!) Perhaps I want to make a declarative statement—It IS this! I AM that! Maybe I’m going for minimal, in which case “It was cold” trumps those other options. I might want to end on a certain impactful word, and arranging that requires the passive. Or maybe it’s just plain smoother.
Those are just a few examples. You might be wondering: why am I bothering to talk about all this stuff when MOST of the time such rules make sense? Because rigid rules means rigid writing. You need to be able to look past the rule to what its purpose is, then decide if that fits your goal.
One rule that I never, ever break, though? The semi-colon. COMPLETE CLAUSE AFTER YOUR SEMI-COLONS, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND GRAMMATICAL! 😛
Tell me, what rules have you broken on purpose?