Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Breakin' da Rules, Breakin' da Rules

First, you may notice that the blog looks a little different. Well, I'm doing some remodeling after I decided that I just couldn't bear to look at pink on black anymore. My eyes have been going all buggy lately and I need something that's easier to look at. I'm sure you'll appreciate that too. That being said, I'm not entirely decided on which template to go with. This one seems nice enough, but I don't know if it's necessarily easier on the eyes. I'm counting on you guys to let me know. :)
I may do a daily change for a week or so, then put up a poll, so make sure you check in everyday so that you can vote.

Now, on to the gist of this post. A couple of you mentioned after yesterday's post your undying love for adverbs. Okay, that may be an exaggeration, but you know what I mean. Let me make myself perfectly clear here...I love rule breakers. Mark Twain just happens to be one of my favorite writers because he broke the rules (frequently), but he did it right. A lot of writers, new and old, don't know what they're doing when it comes to the rules. They break them, but it's not for stylistic reasons. Instead, they just don't know what they're doing.

Let's start with the adverb. It's a pesky little thing that gets a lot of writers into trouble. Like a siren's call, it lures us with its perfect simplicity. But if we're not careful, we can become overzealous and saturate our works with those nasty "ly"s.

Why should they be avoided? Two reasons. One, they are typically found in dialogue tags. And as everyone knows, dialogue tags can slow a work down. Second, there's a 98% chance that you can find a much better, much more powerful verb to get your point across. We may think that when we write "forcefully," "slowly," "pathetically," etc. that we're being very strong with our word usage, but that's just not the case. And quite often, adverbs can shackle us with lazy writing. Think about what those three examples mean. How does someone do something forcefully, slowly, or pathetically? Show what this looks like rather than just telling us it happened.

That being said, this post is about breaking the rules, and I am an advocate of using the proper adverb at the proper time in the proper work. First, know your audience. If you're writing an adult book, keep the usage light (and only after you've considered all other descriptions, and have decided this is best). If you're writing at a lower reading level, you have to keep it simple. That means adverbs are allowed to come out and play a bit more often.

Run-on sentences, flowery prose that compares two separate things, a plethora of commas, etc. are equally shunned by many a writing community, but I say study them and use them when you're ready.

How do you know when you're ready? Well, if you have a run-on sentence because it's in keeping with your narrator's voice, this is good. If you have it because you didn't know how to shut up, this is bad. If your prose is flowery during a particularly intense scene where you want your reader to fall head-long into your world and never surface, this is good. If you have multiple paragraphs where you're trying to get the reader to understand what you're talking about by using comparisons, but never getting to the darn point, this is bad. And so on and so forth.

The best way to know you're ready to break the rules is when you know how to argue your point, rather than just saying, "but I like it. I think it's pretty." I was there for the longest time and I'm just now starting to grasp the art behind writing. It is an art, and there have been many beloved books that didn't stray from the rules, but they never really challenged future writers, either.

Compare writing to painting. For years, portraits centered around the hard and fast physical rules of reality. If you painted a person, it had to look like its subject when you were done. If artists had always clung to those rules, we would never have been able to enjoy Picasso's or Dali's works. Sadly, some artists have forgotten that you should never completely disregard the rules and we have entire paintings in museums that consist of one color (apparently, they're supposed to convey an emotion). My two year old could have painted those.

No, rules must never be completely ignored, but they should be played with, and bent when the situation calls for it. So study them, know them inside and out, and when you're ready, bend them to your will. Mwahahahaha! (just had to add that in there :) )

~Emily White


  1. Everything you said was exactly true. Except for the bit about Picasso's work being good. He was terrible.

    When I started reading this post one of my own quotes came into my head: "Only those who know the rules can break them."


    I do agree that rules are meant to be played with, but that can be a trap.

  3. Christi--AHAHAHAHAHA! I'll respond to everyone else's comments tomorrow, but AHAHAHAHAHA! That was priceless.

  4. I like the new layout, the only thing I would possibly consider changing would be the color of the words, but my eyes naturally attract to black :) Either way I still plan on visiting!

    I don't mind rule breaking either but I know if I can't pull it off then I need to NOT do it!! Some people never learn, but I will definitely take your advice!!

  5. i thought these colors were a bit easier to read, but more contrast would probably help.
    i like the idea of rule breaking, you know being a literary rebel, and all. but i think as for now i'm just too darn ignorant to pull it off well. :)
    oh! and picasso had some great work, but he was like merlin in a way. merlin aged backwards, you know. and picasso started out with some amazing art, but kept breaking it down over the years so that by the time he died his work looked like it could be done by a two year old. personally, i think his early cubist (analytical) works were brilliant but when he deteriorated down to the synthetic cubism stuff he really lost it. ooh! and his blue period was breathtaking. ok, sorry, rant over.
    another great post emily! you're always writing things i need to hear!

  6. Justine-No need to be sorry! Like I said, I'm not completely set on which one I want, so I'm glad you let me know!

    Jai-I'll admit that I am aware of ONE of Picasso's works. I thought it was interesting. And I love your quote, by the way.

    Matthew-Thanks for letting me know!

    Brad-Ha! What? You don't like blue? Or is pink your color? :P
    And yes, a lot of people do use rule breaking as an excuse for lazy or bad writing. But the fact is, those who know how to break the rules, do it to make their works better. Thanks!

    Christi-Still laughing!

    Brad (again)-You are too cruel. I'm still chuckling from Christi, and then you have to make me start rolling on the floor all over again!

    Jen-Exactly! That's a sign of very mature writing-you're willing to admit that rule breaking isn't always best.

    aspiring_x-I loved your rant! And I learned a bit more from it. Thanks!


Yay! Comments! Oh, how I do love them! :D