One of the reasons I’m so fascinated by writing is because it’s a very ambiguous, multifaceted process containing many seemingly opposite elements.
It’s chaotic, like any creative effort, yet it is also structured in order for the creative chaos to be decipherable by an audience. It is abstract, beginning with a blank page and ideas floating in the writer’s mind, yet it becomes specific along the way.
This metamorphosis, going from a blank page to having a world of meaning, thoughts, and ideas, is akin to witchcraft—or so many of my nonwriter friends think, perhaps the way I see knitting as quantum mechanics.
When it comes to such dualities in writing, what thrills me the most is that writing is a continuous balancing act between adhering to certain rules and breaking them. If everyone wrote the exact same way, blindly obeying the laws of writing, all texts would be the same. Furthermore, for the same reason, there would not be any evolution compared to earlier times.
Breaking the rules of writing the right way is an important stage in a writer’s evolutionary path. The reason is that it allows them to infuse their texts with uniqueness and personality.
So, how should you break the rules of writing the right way? The first step of breaking the rules is knowing what they are.
Literary critic Tzvetan Todorov, talking about the opposition between real and unreal in literature, argued that “in order to deny [this opposition], we must first of all acknowledge its terms; in order to perform a sacrifice, we must know what to sacrifice.” (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 1973).
I often give the same advice to writers in regard to breaking the rules of writing: In order to do it successfully, the very first step is to be aware of them. Understanding a rule increases your ability to break it successfully.
The term “rules of writing” is a very generic one, and so it can mean different things to different people or in different contexts. But for our purposes, I would define them as a set of methods, practices, and patterns that are accepted as common in a specific area of writing.
For example, the vast majority of fiction has traditionally been written in either the first or third person, and in the past tense. Or, for an example from nonfiction, news articles have traditionally been written from an impersonal, objective perspective.
I emphasized the word “traditionally” to reveal that things have changed. More and more fiction is written in the present tense, at least partially and sometimes even entirely. As for news articles, we see increasingly more stories written with emphasis on a specific viewpoint rather than objective facts.
Whereas a traditional headline 30 years ago could’ve been “Emergency Landing for Airliner,” followed by a factual description of the incident, nowadays a more probable headline could be “Mother of Three Describes Moments of Terror.”
Breaking the rules of writing effectively refers to a change, a passage from using the common, familiar set of practices to deploying new ones. The examples above have become so common that few would consider them too unorthodox anymore.
Even rules more directly related to language usage, such as rules about punctuation or sentence structure, can and have been broken often enough that they have facilitated the emergence of a new style, as I will explain in more detail in the next section.
However, it’s important to realize that this occurred only after some writers, few at first, began to experiment with such new forms. And it is precisely when you break the rules that your text acquires a personality, standing out from other similar texts.
The next question, then, is how to recognize which rules to break in order for this to occur smoothly.
There is a quick and easy answer: You can break any rule of writing and write any way you want!
However, a more honest and elaborate reply would be this, instead: You can break any rule of writing and write any way you want, provided you don’t care about audience reception.
Now it’s more complicated, isn’t it? Few authors wouldn’t care about audience reception. I referred earlier to writing being a balancing act between adhering to the rules and breaking them. The reason this balance exists is mostly because of audience reception.
Since writing is about communicating thoughts, ideas, and facts, in order for this communication to be successful, the message needs to be decipherable.
And so, I’m afraid there isn’t a clear-cut answer to the question: “Which rules of writing can I break?” As a result of experience and audience feedback, writers learn to balance the risk taken with the artistic payoff. They learn which rules to break, which to bend, and which to leave alone—at least for the time being. Still, I can offer you a couple of tips based on my own experience.
The first thing to keep in mind is that it’s worth experimenting with formatting and style first. This depends a lot on the context. You will have far less latitude when writing an academic text or writing for a publisher with strict guidelines compared to, say, a post on your personal blog.
But, to name a specific example, although Cormac McCarthy was not the first author to leave quotation marks out of his dialogues, his style is emulated by many modern writers. Such formatting changes can be significant enough to create uniqueness while they allow the text to remain accessible.
Another thing to consider is scope: Anything related to writing that lays a claim on being successful needs to happen for a reason. True enough, sometimes a writer might accidentally do something that just works. But it’s important to learn why it worked in order to replicate it.
And so, before you decide you should break a rule, you must ask yourself why you’re breaking it and what you hope to achieve. I can give you a concrete example from my own writing.
Sometime ago I was experimenting with narrative poetry. Poetry can be a fantastic writing exercise. Among other things, it forces the author to go beyond ordinary, everyday words.
On one occasion, I needed to find a three-syllable word that rhymed with “behind” and roughly meant “flawed.” I discovered that there was no such word. And so, I … invented one, and came up with “maldesigned.”
You won’t find this word in a standard English dictionary, but probably most readers can guess its meaning anyway, thanks to the easily identifiable prefix “mal-.” Think of words such as “malevolent” or “maladapted.”
No matter which rule you break, however, the most important thing to keep in mind is timing and context. Which brings us to a difficult aspect of breaking the rules of writing: knowing when to do it.
To an extent, knowing when to break the rules of writing is related to what I referred to above, about scope. You break the rules when you need to, for example, draw the reader’s attention or express something that cannot be expressed otherwise. But, as with most aspects of something as uniquely personal as writing, it all depends.
I think the operative word in this entire topic is “balance,” that is, weighing the pros and cons of the situation. Breaking the rules of writing can offer you freedom to express something that cannot be expressed otherwise, at least not easily.
On other occasions, breaking the rules of writing can help your text stand out from the noise of other texts. Nothing allows your personal voice as an author to appear unique as breaking the rules successfully.
But, as I said, it’s a balance.
To which extent will you sacrifice readability and homogeneity with other texts for being original? To which extent can you, particularly if you’re writing for a publisher or organization with strict guidelines?
As you perhaps expected, there are no easy answers to these questions. The only honest answer I can give to the question “When should I break the rules of writing?” is this: when the benefit of doing so surpasses the associated risk.
I know it’s not a particularly satisfying reply, but it’s an honest one. It also allows you to place yourself into your own writing context and make the call for yourself.
Every time you break a writing rule, you take a little bit of risk—the more obvious the divergence, the greater the risk. Do it too much, too often, or in a wrong context, and readers might not be able to connect with your text, missing what you’re trying to communicate.
On the other hand, a strategically chosen departure from a rule might not interfere with readability, while it still makes your audience say “Hey, that’s smart!” That’s a great feeling to leave a reader with, and the risk would be worth it.
I have mentioned this more than once, also in other articles, but only because it’s so crucial: Writing a text and distributing it to an audience is all about communicating your ideas.
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, personal essays or blog posts on current affairs, this is a common denominator. A writer communicates ideas, thoughts, opinions, perhaps facts, perhaps emotions.
In order for this communication to succeed, both sides, the writer and the readers, need to be on the same page. In other words, the author needs to write in a way that is comprehensible and relatable, yet also engaging and interesting.
As with so many other elements of writing, like listening to or ignoring your inner critic, breaking the rules sits squarely in the middle of everything, creating a dynamic balance: Follow the rules too faithfully, and you get a text that might come off as clinical or impersonal; break the rules too thoughtlessly, and you get a text that might come off as something too difficult to dedicate time and effort to reading. Neither of these outcomes is desirable.
It is often said that good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions. Ultimately, there’s no way around it. As writers, we all need to experiment with our style and our personal voice, and this most certainly involves breaking some rules every now and then.
On one occasion it might work as we intended, on another it might not. But if we learn something from the experience, then we can certainly say that the risk was worth it!
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. Besides his academic research in Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, he is also a writer of literary fiction, and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction. Furthermore, he develops Android apps focusing on literature, writing, and texts in general.