In the past few weeks, I’ve seen too many articles that propound “THE RULES of Writing”. An overabundance, if you will, most of which don’t make any distinction between THE RULES and STYLE CHOICES.
THE RULES are universal. For instance:
- a sentence must have a subject and a verb;
- the subject and verb must agree;
- participles should not dangle;
- a sentence may have only one viewpoint: it cannot start out in first person and end in third;
- Etc., etc., etc.
It’s possible for a good writer to break THE RULES occasionally, but s/he must realize what s/he is doing in order for it to be effective. The universal RULES of writing can be found in any reputable GRAMMAR guide; one I like is Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL).
Anything above and beyond the universal RULES is a STYLE CHOICE:
- No adverbs? Style choice;
- No compound sentences? Style choice;
- No words over three syllables? Style choice;
- No dialogue tags but “said” and “asked”? Style choice;
- Etc., etc., etc.
STYLE CHOICES are found in “Style Guides” and are not universal rules. I, for one, would be much more apt to appreciate their advice if the guides followed these so-called “rules” in their own publications. But, almost universally, they don’t. More scholarly types than I have proven that even the ubiquitous Elements of Style by Strunk & White has broken most of the “rules” it espouses. Go ahead, try to count the adverbs in any guide that propounds “no adverbs”. Count the passive verbs in a guide that propounds “no passive verbs”. It’s almost impossible to write fiction (or to write about fiction) and follow these strictures at all times.
(Of course, there are many who get around the “no adverbs” stricture by substituting an adverbial phrase — eliminating an adverb like “tremulously” in favor of a phrase like “in a tremulous voice”. To me, that’s worse, as it adds empty words to the story.)
Adding to the confusion is that, in the history of literature, STYLE CHOICES are transitory. No one writes like Chaucer any more; few write like Faulkner or Austen. The current trend toward starkness and simplicity will no doubt be as short-lived.
Now, I’m not saying that STYLE CHOICES are wrong. On the contrary, each writer should make these choices for him- or herself. If you want to use smaller words and shorter paragraphs, you are perfectly free to do so. But that doesn’t put writers who use longer words or longer paragraphs in the wrong. Or longer words and shorter paragraphs. Or longer paragraphs… or whatever.
Touting your own STYLE CHOICES to the world at large as “rules” is akin to attempting to convert someone to your religion, and my best advice there is “Don’t do it!”
You and your writer friends will both be happier with the outcome.
P.S. Can you find which of the RULES stated above is broken rule in this article? How many times has it been broken?