Some writers consider themselves artists who can’t be restricted by rules, while others consider themselves craftsmen bound by conventions.
I fall in the middle. One publisher has called me the pickiest person she knows. As an editor, I have to know and follow grammar rules or I wouldn’t have any customers. On the other hand, my writing style is informal and simple, and I usually don’t worry about all the rules that may be used in formal writing. For example, I don’t mind ending a sentence with preposition. Often it sounds more natural and understandable to do so.
In my view, there are several critical elements to good writing:
- The reader must understand it. Using the right word is essential. Using it’s when you mean its or using their or they’re when you mean there can confuse your meaning. Punctuation to show when sentences start and end is critical. Writers must follow some rules to ensure that their readers know what the writer is saying.
- The writing must be consistent. Some style guides call for serial commas (the comma before “and” in a series of three or more: bell, book, and candle). Other style guides say to leave out the last comma if the meaning is clear (bell, book and candle). If you know the preferred style of the publisher you intend to submit to, follow it. But if you’re writing a blog entry or an article for your Web site, you can take your choice of using serial commas or not. But whichever you choose, do it throughout the document. Writing “bell, book, and candle” in the first paragraph and “boys, girls and parents” in the second paragraph won’t work.
- The style of the writing must be appropriate to the subject and the situation. I occasionally edit doctoral dissertations—those papers are more formal and use more “big” words than is typical for fiction. An academic paper should demonstrate that the student has the vocabulary and the formal writing skill appropriate to the level of education. A novel should entertain the reader.
- Dialogue should reflect the education and personality of the character speaking. An uneducated laborer shouldn’t sound like a college professor. But even if dialogue contains improper grammar, it should be punctuated correctly so it is easy for the reader to understand what is being said. And if a character speaks in a dialect, just enough of the dialectal spelling should be used to convey the impression without making it difficult for the reader to decipher what the character is saying.
Of course, since even good writers (and editors) are human, sometimes we all break the rules without intending to. Most editors say we can find everyone’s errors but our own. So if you see me breaking the rules … maybe I did it on purpose, and maybe I just goofed!
Lillie Ammann is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in working with self-publishing authors. Her latest novel is the romantic mystery, Dream or Destiny. She blogs at A Writer's Words, An Editor's Eye.