Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Rules or Artistic License

Must writers follow all the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation or do the rules stifle the writer’s creativity?

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.
Understanding the rules and knowing when you can break them is one of the hallmarks of a good writer.

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.

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  1. Hi Lillie.

    I agree with you that you can break grammar rules in fiction writing -- but you need to break them consistently.

    Good post.

  2. Lillie, I love that last line! lol! This was really clear and good advice on writing. I sometimes take artistic license too depending on the type of writing. You can always spot the difference between a good writer who knows the rule and is breaking them intentionally and a bad writer who does not have a clue. Goofs happen to the best of us but when a document is littered with them it is obvious that the writer really did not have a clue.

  3. Great thoughts you shared here, Lillie. Cliche as it may seem, I was taught in high school by a favorite teacher that you had to know the rules well before you tried to break them. There is just something about a well-broken rule that sings artistically, but the major booboos do really stand out and can make all the difference on your success with publishing and gaining an enthusiastic audience.

  4. I use fragmented sentences for effect. Otherwise, I try to stick by the rules.

    Morgan Mandel

  5. Helen,
    Consistency is so important.

    You're right—the frequency and number of errors indicates whether a writer is taking artistic license or doesn't have a clue.

    You were taught well—breaking rules intentionally is far different from not knowing the rules.

    Thanks for your input. I use sentence fragments also.

  6. >>>An uneducated laborer shouldn’t sound like a college professor.

    Well, you can break that rule in the movies. Who DIDN'T laugh when Eric Palin broke out with "I'm being oppressed!" and other Marxist rhetoric when manhandled by the King in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"?

  7. Something I've picked up in a few manuscripts (and also published books) is "artistically used" grammar in the dialogue accidentally creeping into the third person narrative. In other words, the writer isn't skilled at separating him or herself from the characters.

    It also goes back to what Morgan was saying last week about not forcing your characters to fit into your own perspective.

  8. Mike,
    Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. An uneducated laborer could have learned to talk like a college professor, but that should be shown in other ways in the story. And humor can break all the rules.

    You make an excellent point. Separating the narrative voice and dialogue often takes some time for writers to learn.

  9. Hi Lillie,
    Great post. I totally agree that we often need to break rules to have our own voice...within reason. I'm totally sick of reading books that fit inside a tidy little box. Call me a rebe...cause I want to read new and fresh ideas, and I could give a fig if a sentence ends with a preposition.


  10. Ginger,

    I'm with you on wanting to read new and fresh stories.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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