Breaking writing rules: is it ever okay?
In 11th and 12th grade, 20 or so students from my class were able to take a computer programming class – learning Fortran and Cobol – back when programming meant typing each individual command on an individual manila punch card and then feeding a thick set of these cards into a giant mainframe computer. There was no screen on this computer and results appeared on a continuous roll of paper that was released into a tray from the mainframe.
This was intense, often tedious, work. And, if you got one punch card out of order, if one single card got bent or if there was even one tiny typo, then the entire programming formula didn’t work. If a more serious error was made, then the computer went into an “infinite loop” where paper continually spit out of the computer until it was manually stopped.
Our teacher, at the beginning of class, informed us of an important rule: we were not allowed to comment when someone’s mistake caused an infinite loop. And, being teenagers, the lure was much too big to resist. So, every time that an infinite loop occurred, we stomped our feet on the ground, pounded our fists on our desks, hooted and hollered and shouted, “Infinite loop! Infinite loop!”
The second – and more sacred – part of the rule was that we were not allowed to identify who made the mistake. In reality, we took turns running back to the mainframe to shout out the names, taking turns with this task to evenly spread the burden of being reprimanded.
We also seemed to take turns in creating infinite loops, so no one classmate suffered any more than another.
And, inevitably, the teacher, using his stern disappointed teacher’s voice would remind us of the rules. I have to say that our class respectfully listened as he lectured. However, I also know that, in our 16- and 17-year-old brains, we were already trying to guess who would cause the next infinite loop and planning how we could celebrate.
Purpose of rules
Rules. There are important reasons for rules, whether in computer class or when writing. And, the most important ones should be followed. In computer class, for the most part, we all showed up to class, studied hard and did our best. But, breaking a lesser rule sure made the class more interesting and entertaining.
With writing, rules that shouldn’t be broken include (but are not limited to):
- Write to your audience
- Write in a clear fashion
- Write to engage readers
But, once you know the rules, then you can have some fun playing with the lesser ones. Here are some examples:
1) Make your writing error free.
Well, sure. Unless, of course, you are doing it deliberately to have some tongue-in-cheek fun. For example, in our blog post on proofreading, our opening line contained a misspelling of “in”: Proofreading tips: excellent ways to find mistakes inn copy. I decided to deliberately make an error after considering our blog audience, which consists of smart and word-savvy people who would quickly catch on to my intention.
2) Vary your sentence lengths to make writing read more smoothly.
In general this is great advice and, if you read your work out loud, you’ll usually see when you’re doing this successfully and when you’re not. But, there are exceptions to this rule – and one of them is to use several short and choppy sentences in a row to draw attention to a key section of your text. For example, see how tension builds more effectively with the second version:
- One day after Easter, I was home alone and I was sitting on my couch, reading a book, and then I heard a sound – I wasn’t sure what the sound was so I kept reading but I was kind of scared and then my heart started to pound . . .
- I was home alone, when I heard a sound. A scary sound. My heart pounded while I tried to keep reading. I reached for some jelly beans. They were gone. I was not . . . really . . . alone.
(Okay, so now you know why I don’t write horror or suspense.)
3) Avoid sentence fragments.
This is a rule dearly beloved by English teachers – at least while they’re teaching – but I’ll bet that even they enjoy reading pieces of writing where fragments are used effectively.
Examples of sentence fragments used in this post include:
- Unless, of course, you are doing it deliberately to have some tongue-in-cheek fun.
- Well, sure.
None of the bullet points above would pass muster if in an academic or more formal piece of writing, but they work well in more relaxed, reader-friendly blog posts and articles because they sound conversational.
4) A simpler word is usually a better choice than a more complex word (although a precise word wins over a vaguer one!).
I broke the simpler-is-better rule when I told you that “Our teacher, at the beginning of class, informed us of an important rule.” I could have used “told” but, because this teacher was so formal when sharing this rule, I chose the word “informed.”
Here, I could have used “talked” but chose “lectured” because of the teacher’s tone and demeanor: “I have to say that our class respectfully listened as he lectured.”
5) Avoid one-sentence paragraphs.
I break this rule when I want to show a sentence as either a side note:
- (Okay, so now you know why I don’t write horror or suspense.)
Or to make it stand out:
- We also seemed to take turns in creating infinite loops, so no one classmate suffered any more than another.
(I don’t want you to think we were a bunch of bullies!)
What writing rules have you broken? Looking back, are you glad that you did?