Learn The Rules
(Then Break Them)
“You have to learn the rules of the game.
And then you have to play better than anyone else.”
— Albert Einstein
Recently a blogger I follow on Twitter (Keith Dube) switched from Writing Like This (capitalising the beginning of every word) to the more traditional and grammatically correct way. He explained why in this Instagram post. Until then, I’d just assumed it was a stylistic choice.
But after reading his explanation, it got me thinking about grammar and formatting rules in general. Especially in the publishing industry.
“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.”
— Gilbert K. Chesterton
In one of my earliest novels I bucked traditional formatting trends and dropped all the speech marks from my dialogue. Somewhere inside my rat-sized immature brain I thought this idea was groundbreaking. Instead of speech marks I wrote all my dialogue in BOLD, thinking it would make my work stand out. Publishers would view my manuscript like: Boy, this writer sure is unique. Here’s a book deal and ten million pounds.
Rather than let my writing do the talking, I turned to gimmicks to impress.
Conversations in my novel looked something like this:
What’s goin’ on?
Nothing, he said. What about you?
My work looked amateurish and sloppy. At best I seemed like an experimental author. At worst I came across as unprofessional; someone too lazy to write in the proper format, or someone who just didn’t know what he was doing. Neither was the impression I was hoping to give.
As an editor, I’ve seen so many aspiring authors make this same mistake. Whether it’s due to insecurity about their writing or sheer pig-headedness, plenty of would-be authors decide to play about with industry formatting standards. They mess with the fonts — switching to obscure calligraphy in the hopes it’ll make their writing pop — or they play about with paragraph breaks or chapter organisation or write the novel in pink letters and doodle pictures in the margins. But the end result is almost always the same: they come across unprofessional and the agent tosses their manuscript in a bonfire.
Why handicap yourself before you’ve even started? There are hundreds of writing and grammar books on Amazon, many specifically catering to novel-writing and the correct way to format your work. You don’t have to be a genius to learn how to set out your novel properly. You wouldn’t show up to a job interview wearing a Batman outfit (unless you’re an idiot), so don’t amputate your work in the same way.
You have no excuse.
“The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Like with anything, there are exceptions: writers who have successfully rebelled against convention and gone on to gain a huge fan base and a pot of gold at the end of the author rainbow. In the case of Keith Dube, it worked in his favour: the style added to his writing rather than detracting from it. But it’s easier to fuck with fonts and formatting when tweeting or writing online blogs. The rules aren’t as strict. You can experiment and toy with different styles; in fact, I’d encourage it.
With novels, however, the rules are more rigid, and agents are less inclined to entertain your whims. Even still, Child 44 for instance was a massive hit (as were the two sequels), in spite of author Tom Rob’s Smith insistence on discarding speech marks for his dialogue. Instead, each speaker is denoted with an em-dash. Conversations look like this:
— Why do you say that?
— Why do you think?
In some respects, this isn’t so much a deviation; it’s an alternate way to format dialogue. Speech marks are favoured by the majority, but there are a small minority who prefer the em-dash technique. Cormac McCarthy is one of them. He also drops the g’s from his words and leaves out apostrophes. Don’t ask me why, but in spite of his grammatical affectations he still won a Pulitzer Prize. Stephen King is another who drops g’s at the end of some words in dialogue, leaving them like this: This fuckin guy. And he’s a writing superstar. Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting) is another author I’ve seen adopt the em-dash form of penning dialogue.
The point is, deviation from standard does happen and some people make it work. But that doesn’t mean you should try it. I find Irvine Welsh and Cormac McCarthy books irritating to read for that very reason. In the case of Child 44 and its sequels, I didn’t find it an issue, but in most circumstances it bugs the hell out of me. And I’m sure there are other readers who hate to see it too.
Why risk losing readership just to be cute? Nobody will be put off by familiar formatting. I can’t see any valid reason (point it out to me if there is one) why anyone would think to mess with their work like that. Unless it aids or feeds your story idea, stick to the standard way.
Otherwise, all you’re really doing is reminding your audience they’re reading, and in fiction that’s the last thing you want to do. Your job as a writer is to be invisible, to transport your readers into a dream world. To disconnect them from their reality to join in yours.
The best way to do that is to not give them an excuse to stop reading.
So before you think about breaking the rules, make sure you know them first.
And only break them if you have a damn good reason.
You are not the exception. You are the rule.
“The golden rule is that there are no golden rules.” — George Bernard Shaw
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