Words on a Page Writings about writing

Sometimes you have to break the rules

Someone standing beside a 'Keep Off the Grass' sign

It doesn’t matter what your high school English teacher told you. It doesn’t matter what your university composition instructor told you. And it definitely doesn’t matter what Microsoft Word’s grammar checker tells you.

When writing, there are times when you need to break the rules of writing.

Shocking. Perhaps even sacrilegious. But why do it? There are a number of reasons. I tend to break the rules for three reasons:

  1. The writing will sound (or at least seem) more conversational.
  2. A piece of writing that breaks the rules, and does the job properly, is often more memorable and has a bit more impact than a properly-formed sentence.
  3. Shock value. if someone is expecting a so-called proper constructions and don’t get them, they’ll either be surprised, or (I hope) intrigued enough to keep reading.

Here are some of my thoughts about this.

Some rules you can break

There are four rules that I usually break:

First, starting a sentence with a conjunction. If you’ve read the posts in this space (or my other blogs) for any amount of time, you know that I regularly begin sentences and paragraphs with and or but.

Second, starting or finishing a sentence with a preposition. There’s no reason why words like with or about can’t begin or end a sentence. If the sentence flows, makes sense, and delivers information in an effective and entertaining way then why not?

Third, writing in sentence fragments. Often, a word processor’s grammar checker or a tool like Grammarly will point out that a perfectly readable sentence is a sentence fragment. And that checker will advise you to rewrite that sentence. In many cases, a sentence fragment is easier to read than a wordy sentence. And it carries the same, if not more, impact.

Finally, using one sentence, or even one word, paragraphs. This rule doesn’t seem to be as contentious as it once was. A lot of web writing, copywriting, and newspaper articles break that rule. Still, there are people who rail against this sort of thing. I figure that if writing in one-sentence or one-word paragraphs adds impact to your writing then you should do it.

Don’t break rules just for the sake of breaking them

That’s what a lot of would-be writers do. You need to have a reason for breaking the rules. Don’t break the rules simply because they exist. Understand how the rules work and why and when you can break them. If you have to, brush up on your grammar. Then go out and effectively twist grammar to your own ends: entertaining your readers.

Don’t overdo it. If you continually break the rules, especially in the same ways all the time, people will see you as a one-trick pony. Your readers will get bored, and your writing will seem telegraphic. You don’t want to be known for either.

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