By: Christopher Fox, Ph. D
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” ― Pablo Picasso
Rules Provide the Reason
Many writers love to write about rules. Sometimes they offer truly valuable advice, and sometimes they merely bring strong language to bear to defend a pet peeve. In fact, more often than not, you’ll notice a little bit of both behind each writer’s good writing precepts. And that’s really fine. I’m sure I’ve done it, too.
“If the communication is perfect, the words have life, and that is all there is to good writing, putting down on the paper words which dance and weep and make love and fight and kiss and perform miracles.” – Gertrude Stein
Do it openly and honestly and above all with confidence. You can! Your confidence shows up all the more brightly when you know the exact rules you’re breaking and why.
Breaking Rules Provides the Art
Here’s why being a rule breaker is so powerful. When you work tension between mastering the rules and defeating them, you equip yourself with the intentional decision of making language work to achieve your writing goals.
Not that we need to break the back of syntax and run around in full experimental frenzy every time we take to the blank page, of course. Instead, I mean making targeted choices that resonate and connect with your reader.
Remember, First Know the Rules
I don’t want readers of this piece to think it’s a call for thoughtless, sloppy writing. This is not about giving writers permission for bad or lazy choices. As writers, we should all have our basic tools at our fingertips, both physically and intellectually. You should always have a dictionary, grammar, usage manual, and style guide well within reach.
The reference works you choose are, of course, a matter of choice. In addition to coming out as a rule breaker, I should also own up to being a bit of an obsessive, as well as someone still deeply in love with the PRINTED word. My choices are the full Oxford English Dictionary and The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. I love The Chicago Manual of Style for its concision and practicality, too.
Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage also provides excellent guidance and context and is riddled with wry, dry moments. In fact, the older editions of it written by Henry Fowler are even better, at least if you are the type to be amused by a tart observation on correct usage.
Here’s just one choice Fowlerism that also states precisely the point I am making: “We tell our thoughts, like our children, to put on their hats and coats before they go out.” You can have fun with a few more Henry Watson Fowler quotes here.
Finally, the elephant in the room of style, albeit a small element. You have to know Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. It’s essentially the source text for American standards of good writing. It will likely both embarrass you, by showing up your own sludgy moments for what they are and infuriate you, by laying down stylistic laws that attempt to shatter every poetic bone in your body. Can you tell I have mixed feelings about it?
Then, Break the Rules as Necessary
Sometimes, following the rules is the laziest choice you can make. They may be appropriate, but when used as inflexible dogma, they ring false. If you happen to need permission, I’m giving everyone reading this permission right now to:
Today I used the word “uncircumventability” in a LinkedIn post. I didn’t want to use a long phrasal explanation of what I meant. I wanted a single word which, though it won’t be found in any dictionary, still conveys my meaning. And by using it, I made a very specific point.
This works because the English language has commonly understood rules for word formation. It’s one of our joys as writers to be able to use prefixes and suffixes to build meaning on top of meaning. We inherit it from both the Germanic and Romance language branches of our family tree, so we can even add them to already compound words such as “circum-vent,” (to come around). Here’s a great list of prefixes you can use, even if your spell-checker puts a red line under the resulting word.
Also, you can also use words that merely work because of their sound and context. We owe the genius of words such as “intertwingle,” “discombobulated,” “transmogrify,” and so many more to rule breakers of the past–and we should be rightly grateful to them for it. And of course, one of the English language’s most celebrated breaker of rules coined hundreds – Shakespeare invented 422 by a conservative count: May we all give even just a small fraction of this joy to our community of readers!
When you are writing for a general or a novice audience, you generally should avoid jargon unless you are explicitly defining your terms. But think carefully of your reader. If you are writing for finance professionals, use words such as “securitization,” “fungibility,” and “tokenized” freely. In such cases, jargon makes sense, when plain English would require beating around the bush while still failing to make a point.
All of our audiences come to our writing from within a specific culture, and sometimes that culture is professional. Disregarding that culture ends up doing readers a disservice because after all, there are real reasons why the people using it needed a specialized term to convey a specialized concept. Here are some sensible, balanced thoughts around using jargon effectively and when appropriate.
Grade-level guidelines must be observed when writing for the general reader or consumer. In some cases, such as healthcare, it can even be mandated to stick to a specific grade level or below. At the same time, we have to realize a few things.
First, were you ever in a classroom where all of the students read at the same level? Of course not. It’s a useful abstraction, but it’s only an indicator. Second, are readers at a sixth-grade reading level (for example) your actual audience? Sometimes, they may be, but not always.
As writers, we are much better off writing for the readers we want to have when we have the choice to do so. For my part, I want my readers to feel trusted enough that I don’t have to talk down to them, and I write accordingly.
But since a readability checker can still give us a sense of where we’ve landed, we can always use the built-in tools to many word processing tools, or third-party checkers, such as Readability Formulas. For reference, this particular post is at an average eighth-grade level.
I tend to treat diction and grammar as nearly inviolable, but even there, in the right hands, using words that reflect folkish speech or dialect can bring a unique power to one’s writing. There really isn’t a grammar or stylistic rule that can’t be broken to convey the right idea with the appropriate nuance. And as with grade level, I ask you to take a moment to imagine and trust that your readers can follow you as you break those rules.
A Rule Breaker’s Credo
People, we live on this planet for far too short a time not to play and dance with each other at the fullest reach of our joy. In a word, breaking the rules simply means knowing your purpose, and bringing your purpose to the dance of language as a gift.
“There is no list of rules. There is one rule. The rule is: there are no rules. Happiness comes from living as you need to, as you want to. As your inner voice tells you to. Happiness comes from being who you actually are instead of who you think you are supposed to be.
Being traditional is not traditional anymore. It’s funny that we still think of it that way. Normalize your lives, people. You don’t want a baby? Don’t have one. I don’t want to get married? I won’t. You want to live alone? Enjoy it. You want to love someone? Love someone. Don’t apologize. Don’t explain. Don’t ever feel less than. When you feel the need to apologize or explain who you are, it means the voice in your head is telling you the wrong story. Wipe the slate clean. And rewrite it. No fairy tales. Be your own narrator. And go for a happy ending. One foot in front of the other. You will make it.” – Shonda Rhimes
Shonda Rhimes overcame countless insecurities about her visible self, but she was known to all of us through her written word in such TV shows as Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder.
Her decision to break her rule about public appearances gave me encouragement to break some of my rules, too.
Calling all Rule Breakers – What’s the One You Broke?
What rules do you break in your writing, life, or choices that have improved your life or writing? They just might inspire me to break more, too.
Christopher G. Fox, Ph. D. is a writer and communications strategist living in Los Angeles. He works with executives and subject matter experts to help them build reputations through messages, conversations, stories, and thought leadership.
His website, Syncresis® is a consultancy focused on thought leadership, patient communication, and content strategy. Its unique virtual operating model means that teams are purpose-built to the needs of a specific client and project.
He is also the creator of Kindness Communication®, which promotes the idea that the worlds we move in can be better places if we make kindness the core of how we operate.
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