I’m one of the last people you’d expect to break writing rules. I studied editing for my Master of Technical and Scientific Education degree, and I was a proofreader for a local newspaper. I favor the Oxford comma, and when I critiqued chapters on for an online workshop, I spent most of my time pointing out punctuation errors. And yes, I admit to being both anal and conscientious. So why am I blogging about breaking the writing rules?
Rules exist for a reason—to make something safer or fairer for everyone. When it comes to writing rules, the punctuation and grammar rules are there to make things clear. For example, knowing how to use semicolons and commas when making lists will help you separate each item correctly, so there’s no confusion. This is also why I use the Oxford comma. This sentence: “He liked my parents, Darth Vader and Yoda,” could mean that my parents are Darth Vader and Yoda. That would definitely cause a disturbance in the Force. Adding a comma after “Darth Vader” makes it clear that this name is a separate item in the list, not a description of my parents. Rules like this are worth following because if your readers become confused, you’ve lost them.
However, there are other writing rules that have less justification for existing. Some of them are based on a misunderstanding of the language, some of them might be applicable in formal speech but less so in fiction, and some of them are rules thoughtlessly passed down from writer to writer because that’s how they were taught or because some writing styles were in fashion when they started writing. When traditional publishing was the only game in town, writers had to follow the rules to have a chance of breaking in. Now, however, you don’t have to please agents and editors, only readers, and their tastes may be broader than gatekeepers give them credit for. It’s worth re-examining these types of rules to see if they’re still worth following. There are times when breaking a rule will help you achieve a certain effect in your fiction. However, first you have to understand the rule in order to break it effectively.
Let’s start by looking at one of the most well-known rules: don’t use adverbs. (This advice is generally directed at words that end in "ly," but those aren't the only adverbs around.) The reason you’re not supposed to use adverbs is because they can make a sentence seem wordy or redundant. They may also be used to shore up weak verbs to make your writing style seem “pretty.” (Adjectives are also used for this purpose.) In my opinion, a strong verb is more concise and powerful than a weak verb plus an adjective. For example, why say “walk slowly and deliberately” when you can say “paced” or “plodded”? But removing an entire class of words from your toolbox is extreme. There may be times when you want to use a strong verb but shade its meaning, or even imply the opposite of what the verb normally means. For example, smiling is normally a happy or friendly gesture, but pairing “smiled” with “sadly” or “meanly” puts a new set of emotions behind the upturned lips and in the eyes. Also, if you’re writing historical fiction or steampunk, using florid phrases may help evoke the time period.
When it comes to breaking any writing rule, moderation is key. If there are a lot of adverbs on every page, then they can become tiresome to read. The fewer adverbs you use, the more impact each one will have. However, it’s not worth breaking your writing flow to strip adverbs from your sentences as you write. If adverbs come to you in the heat of the first draft, feel free to include them. You can always strip them out later if you decide deleting them won’t affect your sentence. I deliberately included some adverbs in this essay, but I also removed some that I felt were too wordy.
How do you feel about adverbs, or writing rules in general? Are there other writing rules you’d like me to discuss in this series? Feel free to mention them in the comments.