I’ve always been one to follow the rules. For the most part, rules makes sense. Consider what happens when drivers decide to ignore that one about the yellow line down the center. Still, much of life is about breaking convention, too.
As a writer, my world is overflowing with rules. For instance:
- Put a period at the end of a sentence, except if it’s a question, then a question mark.
- Use “and,” “but,” or “or” to join two complete thoughts into one sentence.
The list goes on and on and on.
Proper word usage, spelling, and arrangement prevents communication chaos, and the average person accepts the basics, even if he or she can’t name the reasons why they’re followed.
Meanwhile, artists of all kinds are known rule breakers. Those who have the courage, confidence, or complacency to throw off the shackles, shake things up, and shatter conventional thought usually find success in doing so. They ignore the stuffy mindset that believes rules are more important than results.
A famous example is the late Gertrude Stein who used very few commas (or any punctuation) in her writing. Her work is tough to read, but she has many fans. And she is remembered as a successful someone who broke sovereign rules.
Additionally, when an artist reaches a level where the critics roam, she learns of rules she never knew existed, rules made up to suit people’s personal tastes. I am forever learning about these expectations from other writers, particularly through clubs or conferences where we come together to talk about the craft. And this is where I start to get … well … unruly.
An example of this includes the doctrine, “Never open a piece with a quotation.” I obviously didn’t know about that one when I wrote “The Reward of Taking a Risk,” a story about a friend. I guess the publishers didn’t either when they put it in the latest Chicken Soup for the Soul‘s anthology called the The Dating Game! without ever mentioning my opening.
“Clare found some guy on the internet,'” Gail said, the apprehension coloring her face.
That was the way it was written, and had they changed it, the piece wouldn’t have been the same.
Truthfully, these kind of rules make me cringe every time I hear them, not because of the advice, but because of the dictorial way in which they are expressed, like the faithful reciting the 10 commandments. You hear them whereever “students” are hungry to be better writers and the “teachers” are soundboarding what they were taught. Learners must be careful not to fall into the mold, the sterile trap of conformity.
Which brings me to their favorite mantra of all: “Thou shalt limit the use of adjectives.” Adjectives are noun modifiers that color our world. They are bright, vibrant, dark and soothing. They are good, wise, and perfect. I haven’t counted them, but if they weren’t supposed to be used, they shouldn’t have put so many in the dictionary. I agree that over described nouns become adjectival speed bumps that leave readers tired and frustrated. But behold the power of the adjective. Like lead bullets, they conjure an image better than any lonely noun can.
Imagine you’re on a drive in the countryside. Among the tall trees, winding roads, and blue skies you find the occassional sign, luring you to stop. Here, adjectives make the difference. For instance:
Ah, other people’s stylistic rules. They may start with the best intentions, but they go sour when they morph into a gospel that impedes creativity, communication, and expression. And if you think the adjective gets a bad wrap, you should hear what they say about the adverb.