Thursday, April 8, 2010

Rebel Without an Eraser!- Part 2

Last month I wrote a post about following rules-- and breaking rules. I started that post by telling you all how much I like to follow rules. But, after the conversation that followed that post, I realized that that's not really true. Actually, I'm much more of a rebel than I give myself credit for!

I do follow rules. But, I don't like to follow rules that don't make sense to me. It just makes me feel rebellious when someone tells me not to do something for no good reason.

Like that rule against sentence fragments that J.L. commented about. A student who carefully observes the writing around them will see fragments being used. So, that student who reads carefully will either think that this is a frequent mistake in the published writing he sees or that the rule doesn't make sense at all and he can use fragments whenever he chooses.

The rebel in me wants to propose a different option. Why can't rules be taught with their nuances involved? Why can't students be taught when it's appropriate to use a fragment... and when it's not.

Without this nuance, don't aspiring writers have trouble making sense of their world. They're told no rhyme, but a trip to any bookstore shows many books written in rhyme. They're told no anthropomorphism and yet they see it in print so often.

I'm just wondering, wouldn't it be more effective if the nuance is taught to begin with rather than an absolute rule that these beginners can see with their own eyes is just not true? Then beginning writers could go straight to studying how to write good rhyme-- rather than just ignoring the rule that doesn't make sense to them, while they happily dash off sing-song rhyme with bad rhythm, convinced that they're the next Dr. Seuss.

So, what do you think? Should "rules" be presented as absolutes or can we teach them with their nuance from the beginning? I'm really looking forward to continuing this conversation!


  1. I still maintain that in writing, no rule is absolute as long as it is beautifully broken. Fragments, for example, if used haphazardly, could just be bad writing. But a well placed fragment illustrates the character's voice and the tone of the novel.

  2. There are no absolute rules in writing. But I think there is a structure that needs to be learned.

    Picasso didn't start out painting abstract, he started with structure and evolved. One needs to have a foundation before one can bend and/or break the rules.

  3. I agree to a point, but think the problem with teaching nuances from the beginning is that you need basic knowledge before you can recognize subtleties. Yes, it would be ideal if students were shown the difference between good and bad rhyme.

    All goes back to the old "show, "don't tell?" SHOW how good writing works, don't TELL a bunch of rules?

  4. I think there are rules that are firm, but not necessarily one hundred percent accurate. Most of these types of rules are rules of grammar and good writing (using active verbs, not passive voice, eliminating repetition, editing that and just, etc.).

    Not tackling rhyme in your first PB is not really a rule, just a darned good suggestion. But there are rules to rhyming--not necessarily as firm as rules of grammar, but rules anyone who attempts rhyming should consider.

  5. Thanks so much for all the thoughtful comments, guys!

    Meg-- I completely agree with you that no rule is absolute. And what a lovely way to put it-- "beautifully broken".

    Bish-- I agree with you that learning structure is important for a foundation. If you don't even know what point-of-view is, it's impossible to discuss it in a meaningful way.

    Gale-- Your "show don't tell" comment makes so much sense to me! I think you nailed the problem I'm trying to articulate when you say "don't TELL a bunch of rules". Writers who "collect" rules without really seeing them applied just can't grow in the same way as writers who think about the reasons why a technique works (or why it doesn't).

    J.A.-- I see what you're saying. The word "rule" gets thrown around an awful lot. Definitely there are times when the more appropriate term might be suggestion.

    So, here I go trying to articulate my question further:

    I guess I wonder, do suggestions presented initially as "rules" keep some beginning writers from taking risks? (Once taught that fragments are unacceptable, do some writers never learn the joy of using them?) Are some beginning writers tied to an unofficial "rule book"? Can this lead to safe, boring writing?

  6. Maybe the rule about breaking rules is that you have to know them before you can break them? I like Bish's example of Picasso. I love it when I find really well-written books that break the rules.

  7. I agree that you need to know the rules before breaking them. Fragments are the norm in a lot of YA because it's how we speak and think. Put in a well structured gramtically correct sentence and you won't sound like a real person.

  8. I agree that you almost always have to know the rule before you can break it successfully or "beautifully." In student writing, I can tell right away when sentence fragments are used deliberately (the writer knows that's not a sentence, but it's used for effect) and when the person has no clue they're being ungrammatical or just didn't proofread.

  9. I think rules cause some writers to think twice before breaking them, which is probably not a bad thing. I do think that just stating rules as if they are fact does a disservice to the craft. I understand that editors are very busy and tired people. They probably get thousands or bad rhyming books or unoriginal stories about anthropomorphized animals. Yet anyone with half a brain can walk into the children's section of a bookstore and see that these books not only get published, but they sell and are beloved by children.

    Is it that they are trying to put a "Keep Out Unless You Are Already an Expert" sign on the door? That's the way it makes me feel anyway.