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CONCIOUSLY BREAKING THE RULES

July 23, 2014

Something I’ve repeated over and over again is that though there are certain rules to good writing, with some of them, they’re like the pirate code, they’re merely guidelines. Aaargh!

The key is knowing when to break them, doing it consistently and with finesse.

WHICH RULES TO I BREAK?

Okay, I don’t really break a rule. I simply use an alternative interpretation. In the Chicago Manual of Style, when it comes to commas in a series, the last one uses a comma and an and.

John held a box full of wrenches, pliers, saws, and files.

However, the military technical writing interpretation is that in the last instance, the and takes the place of the final comma so the extra comma is redundant.

John held a box full of wrenches, pliers, saws and files.

That’s been my interpretation since becoming an Air Force writer back in the late 80’s. I’ve stuck with that throughout my nine years as a civilian technical writer working for the Air Force. I don’t care what the Chicago Manual of Style says. That’s a conscious decision that I use consistently throughout everything I write.

BIG NAME AUTHORS BREAK ALL THE RULES

When you start out writing, a lot of times, people will tell you to follow by example. In other words, whatever genre or subject you write, pick up a book by a successful author and look at their example.

Wrong move. Usually.

I say that because first off, that author got there in a different time and place. He or she got their break under a different set of rules than what you’re subjected to, especially if you’re pitching blind.

Second, once established, many authors tend to throw the rules away and take the easy way out. They can get away with it because they’re making money. Money talks. When money talks, quality means squat.

Third, often times if this popular author had a great pitch, or was in the right place at the right time, the publisher would tend to overlook certain flaws (certain rules they would still impose on you, the average schlub out there in line with everyone else they’re trying to filter out with the flack). The publisher may or may not have caught those flaws in editing. Down the line, as the author became more popular, things would get a lot fuzzier.

It boils down to this: Don’t use popular authors as good examples when it comes to rules!

I’m not saying to never use popular authors as examples, but you have to look for the magic, not the rules.

KNOWLEDGE AND INSTINCTS RULE BEST

To really know which rules you can break, you first have to learn what they are. Once that’s accomplished, then you can get a feel for which ones you can break. Until then, don’t try to get cute! It’ll just end up biting you in the ass!

Happy writing!

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