Friday, August 12, 2011

Cues from the Coach: Turning Writing-Rule Lemons into Literary Lemonade

As a word artist, do you find your imagination shackled by admonitions and restrictions from the grammar police? Do you struggle to remember the “rules” on

• subject-verb agreement?
• active vs. passive verbs?
• show, don’t tell?
• whether or not to put a comma before the conjunction in a series?
• avoiding fragments, run-ons, and dangling modifiers?
• substituting sharp, original expressions for perfect but forbidden clichés?

Are your creative juices draining away beneath the pile of writing-rule lemons? These rules are not intended to hamper creativity, but to establish order, credibility, and clarity. Let’s consider the ones noted above.

In any written material, the absence of subject-verb agreement becomes an instant bump in the reading road. Flow is interrupted, and the reader experiences a “huh?” moment.

Example 1: Emma and Charles was seen running from the crime scene.

Unless we’re inside the head of a viewpoint character who has had neither formal schooling nor exposure to those who have had, we’ve stopped reading.

Example 2: Emma and Charles were seen running from the crime scene.

We’re still reading because we want to know why they were there and why they were running away. The subject-verb agreement rule empowers our writing and keeps the reader reading. We have lemonade.

With occasional exceptions, active verbs should take precedence over their passive counterparts. Why? It’s that “show, don’t tell” thing. Telling the readers a story may put them to sleep. Showing them the action by pulling them into it keeps them wide awake and turning pages. More lemonade.

Example 1: It was a dark and stormy night. (Passive verb. Very telling.)

Example 2: The rumbling storm shot jagged fingers of light into the darkness. (Active verb. Paints [shows] a graphic word picture.)

Whether or not to put a comma before the conjunction in a series seems to be an ongoing debate. Called the Oxford comma, it is often omitted by writers and reporters. However, The Chicago Manual of Style urges its usage to avoid ambiguity. Because consistency in our writing is vital—and this comma may clarify one or more sentences that could otherwise inspire another “huh?” moment—we should always use it. This offers a big glass of lemonade to our reader.

Many writers realize that fragments and run-ons don’t work in formal writing. Occasional fragments may be used in more casual settings—such as novels and how-to books—but that only holds true if the writer has demonstrated he/she knows the rule.

Dangling modifiers are another matter. While they may elicit a laugh from the reader, they do nothing to enhance clarity.

Example 1: While sitting on the balcony, the setting sun painted the evening sky with bands of gold, coral, and amethyst. (The sun was sitting on the balcony, painting a picture?)
Example 2: While sitting on the balcony, Emma watched the setting sun paint the evening sky with bands of gold, coral, and amethyst. (Oh, Emma was sitting on the balcony, but not painting.)

Note: In both cases, “evening” is superfluous. The “setting” sun indicates it’s evening, so we need to eliminate the redundancy.

Clichés, comfortable and familiar as they are, imply lazy writing. The one exception to this might be characterization—a single character whose persona includes these trite expressions; even in this case, they should be used infrequently.

Example 1: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. (cliché)

Example 2: You can present him with the facts, but whether he chooses to accept them is up to him. (You can no doubt think of a more original way to say this, but you get the idea.)

When we review the writing rules from the perspective of what they can do for us rather than to us, we open the window wide and let the breezes of imagination in. Then those sour, writing-rule lemons that inhibited us in the past are squeezed into a crystal pitcher, sweetened with organic sugar, diluted with pure water, and voilà! We have lemonade. Would you like a glass?

How do you make your lemonade?

Linda Lane teaches writing and editing in addition to doing book edits. Her online workshops will be available this fall. Visit her at and

Bookmark and Share


  1. Linda: I'll be tweeting this link! I have several writing friends who ask me about the serial comma all the time, so who knows what other grammar questions lurk? You explain the rationale well.

    And I agree that constrictions help inspire creativity, but I'd never thought of grammar rules as one of them. Interesting.

  2. The lemonade does help the lessons go down. (smile)

    Good points and very well presented. It is always so good to have concrete examples.

    There is still some inconsistencies on the use of the serial comma among small publishers as all don't adhere to the CMS. So when I am editing for a client, I tell them that when they do a final proofing, they will have to do whatever the publisher requires regarding that.

  3. Linda: Good rework of old rules that new writers too often forget. I am particularly happy to see you defend the serial comma, and I love the term Oxford comma, which is more colorful although less descriptive. At least once a day I find myself having to reread a sentence that I parsed incorrectly the first time through, and all because the publisher's style manual did not mandate the serial comma.

    Redundancy and superfluous words can also be lemonade for the reader, giving them a second chance of building a mental image or sensing the mood or understanding the writer's intent. "The setting sun painted the evening sky" is, arguably, more poetic; the parallelism results in better scansion. Most readers are probably not conscious of the contribution that meter and rhythm can make to readability, but it is, nonetheless, real. Some writers are willing to sacrifice rules in favor of a read-aloud rhythmicity that can make a passage more memorable and quotable.

    --Larry Constantine
    Lior Samson Author Page

  4. Fiction = Chicago Manual of Style rules and the serial comma is a difference from AP Style which many journalists follow. When journalists become novelists they should add that extra comma! I'll have a hard lemonade, thank you!

  5. Your examples really helped. Very good tutorial.

    You're right, rules are changing on the comma, but then rules seem to be forever in flux.

  6. I often see writers creating new words, like craptastic and redonkulous. I think they are funny if used sparingly.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. If a glitch is preventing you from commenting, visit our Facebook page and drop your wise words there: Blood-Red Pencil on Facebook