THE BLOG

How To Break All The Rules

Aug 01, 2014 | Updated Oct 01, 2014

Writing would be so much easier if there were clear, easy-to-follow rules: insert Tab A into Slot B, stir counterclockwise, and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Novices often look to more experienced writers for the secret of their success. These writers usually trot out platitudes and time-worn advice (Be yourself! Show, don't tell!) or ironic non-advice (Use a pencil!).

It seems that every great author has compiled a list of writing rules at some point in their careers. Ray Bradbury offers up a dozen rules, Kurt Vonnegut recommends eight, and Henry Miller created eleven commandments. The Gotham Writers Workshop has a treasure trove of advice from famous authors.

The late Elmore Leonard wrote an essay for the New York Times that included his ten rules for writing:

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said"...he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

He freely admits that for each of these rules, there are examples of great -- or at least popular -- books that break them. That's because there is no empirical standard by which writing is judged; tastes vary from person to person, and even books that break the so-called rules of writing still manage to capture the hearts of readers. (At a glance, the Twilight series violates almost all of Elmore Leonard's rules.)

At Grammarly, we tend to focus on the nuts and bolts of writing; after all, our business is correcting other people's grammar. But for every so-called rule -- like, for example, never starting a sentence with a preposition -- there exists an exception. This summer, we recommend doing something radical: break all the rules.

Write freely and with abandon. Don't worry about adverbs or comma splices. Stop fretting about whether you're "doing it right" and just write. There is no one correct way to write, and following every rule in the book won't make your text a success. Instead, give yourself the freedom to experiment... and, ultimately, to find your own voice.

Kurt Vonnegut, in the introduction to his short story collection Bogambo Snuff Box, admitted that his rules for writing should be broken:

The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O'Connor. She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.

That first rule? Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

Challenge yourself to break the rules. You may be surprised at the results.