Monday, August 25, 2014

Your Style Sucks: When and Why to Break The Rules

Some time ago, a writer friend of mine asked me to critique their work. They hadn't written much, which made it easy to oblige. So I gave it a read and the next time I saw my friend, I brought it up. While reading my friend's work, something struck me. My friend had used a lot of incomplete sentences. Half sentences. Sentences that didn't seem to finish before a new one started. It was some of the strangest use of language I'd ever encountered. Needless to say, this poor grasp of syntax and grammar did not lend itself to the most pleasant reading experience. It wasn't to the point that it was indecipherable by any means. It was just strange.
I said to my friend, "You know, you use a lot of half sentences."
"Oh yeah." My friend responded. "That's my style."

I looked for the nearest exit to that conversation. I probably changed the subject or went and got a drink or leaped out the nearest window, grabbed hold of a telephone wire and glided to safety. That's how I like to remember it.

In any event, what I learned that day was that, sometimes, when a person says the words "What do you think?" or "I'd like some feedback." What they are really saying is, "Please praise me for this thing I have done." And if you just want to show off, then fine. Let me be the first to shake your hand, pat you on the back and say "Well done. You did a thing!" Just don't ask for honest or critical feedback if you don't want it.

But coming back to that statement ("It's my style.") I find myself wondering if this is ever a good excuse. Can style break the rules and create good writing? Well, yeah. Sometimes it does, although let's just clarify that by saying quality of writing is something of a subjective notion. Still, a lot of people seem to like Ulysses and that certainly sacrificed a lot for style. Catcher in The Rye makes use of passive voice as a stylistic choice to define the narrator. There's a lot to be said for style.

So then, I guess the question is, when does style win?

Or, perhaps the better question is, when is it okay to break the rules? Rules are, of course, made to be broken. I've gone on record as saying the rule "Show, don't tell." can, often is and should be broken. But that doesn't make it any less a "Rule for Good Writing" (somebody suggest a better name. Something snappy.) So when can we break those rules?

Um... I don't know. Nope. Sorry, I don't have a clean cut answer for this. You'll have to figure it out for yourself. I mean, I break the rules. When do I do it? I do it when it works. But when it works to break a rule can't be easily defined. It depends on what and how you're writing.

Fortunately, what I can do, is help guide you in deciding whether or not you're going to be a rule breaker.

#1: Don't do it often. Be sparing in how and when you break the rules. The standard style in which you write - that is, your default voice and use of language - should not be built on breaking the rules.

#2: Know the rules. There are rules and you should follow them. They're easy to learn. The rules are important. Use active voice. Kill ugly adverbs. Show, don't tell. Start as late in the story as you can. Engage all your reader's senses. Pick a tense and stick to it. The verb goes between the subject and the object of your sentence. The full stop goes at the end of your sentence. These are all rules. Know them. Obey them.

#3: Understand the rules. It's not enough to go around reciting the mantra "Adverbs are bad. No words ending in -ly." Pick up a dictionary and learn what an adverb is. Not all adverbs end in -ly and not all words that end in -ly are adverbs. Not all adverbs are bad, either. But a clunky adverb in the wrong place can be damaging to your writing. We're told to gut our work of these menaces for a good reason. They're ugly, clunky and often unnecessary. You never need to tell me that "John ran quickly down the road." because by using the word "ran" I know he's going "quickly"

#4: Know what you want to accomplish with breaking the rules. Are you doing it to set a tone? Are you doing it to emphasise a point? Is it important to charaterise your narrator? Is it funny? Is it exciting? "It's my style." is not a reason. Don't break the rules to stand out. Break the rules because it adds more than it subtracts from your work.

#5: Don't do it at all. Don't break the rules. Find a way around it. Find an option that does what you want without breaking the rules. Rethink your plan. Go back to the drawing board. Explore your options. Look for an equally effective way to tell your story, the way you want to tell it, without breaking the rules.

And finally, go ahead and smash them. Rip them out, break them in half and stomp them into the dirt. Rules? Fuck the rules. You are the master of your own destiny. Sometimes the best option is to kick tradition right in its pudgy, decrepit arse.

Rules can be broken, they are broken and they should be broken. If it makes your writing stronger and your story better, then do it. But before you can be sure that it's the best move, you need to understand why so many writers who came before you have learned them, followed them and passed them down. The wisdom of the ages should not be ignored. Only when you understand what those rules mean and what they do for your writing, can you see how breaking them might add to your work.

And don't ever, ever do it because it's your "style." That's your style? Sorry, buster. Your style sucks.

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