There’s Only One Rule in Writing:
There Are No Rules

09/02/11 8:00 AM

Okay, so that title is misleading. Sure there are rules. I have rules. That ultra-particular person in your writers group definitely has rules, and rules for his rules. Your seventh grade English teacher had rules. Agents have rules. Publishers have rules. But here’s the funny thing about rules, at least in writing (and probably in anything): they’re fluid. They evolve.

Remember the “rule” that you had to use two spaces after a period? Not anymore.

Or how ’bout the rules that got your English papers covered in red ink, like ending a sentence with a preposition, verbifying nouns, or splitting infinitives? (See how I just broke one of ’em?)

Even things that have rules — like commas — grammarians and fusspots still debate about. (See that? I just broke another rule.)

So my point in saying there are no rules is just that: there aren’t really any rules. There are accepted ways of doing things. There are even “more correct” ways of doing things. But for every correct way you show me, there’s at least one writer out there breaking that rule — and breaking it well.

The problem with rules is they can be restrictive, especially in the wrong hands. For example, don’t change a sentence that reads and sounds right because you — gawd forbid — ended it in a preposition and you’re “not supposed to do that.”

Laura Matthews, a friend of mine in my writers group (and a fabulous editor as well), offered this bit of wisdom the other night: Be intentional with everything you write. So if you’re going to end that sentence with a preposition, and you have a good reason for doing so even though it violates a “rule,” do it. But it has to be intentional. Don’t break rules out of laziness. Or ignorance. Which brings me to another important point: you need to learn the rules first before you can break them with intention.

So learn them. Learn the conventional and accepted ways to use a semicolon. Learn what a comma splice is and how to fix it. Learn how to remove that preposition from the end of the sentence. If you’re taking a class with a fussbudget for a teacher and he or she is set on some (in your opinion) inane or arcane rule, follow it in that world, knowing that you can break it in yours.

Agree or disagree? I know writers on both sides of the aisle on this one, so weigh in. (Just keep it civil.)

On a separate note, I’m happy I got to use the words fusspot and fussbudget in the same post. Like the word hogwash, these are great words that I don’t use nearly enough in my day-to-day life. I’m trying to remedy that. (Hey, it’s the little things, people.)

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2 Comments on “
There’s Only One Rule in Writing:
There Are No Rules

  1. Margo Says:

    That’s very wise advice, in order to break the rules, you need to know them.

  2. Phil Says:

    I agree. All rules were made to be broken when you observe this rule: Be intentional with everything you write. Excellent advice!