Playing by the Rules … or Not?

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“I’ll allow it.” Ah, those three magical words that warm my heart and touch my soul. My husband and I have recently picked up playing Scrabble together, and we have a wonderful time taking turns arranging letters while watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Once in while we come across a word that doesn’t quite fit the requirements, but it’s just too good not to play. As long as the play is followed by those magic words, a new score gets tallied on the sheet.

This works for us. We play Scrabble to have fun, stretch our minds, and bond with each other. Sure, we know the rules. But if we want to play with an open dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, no less), and if we want to coin words once in a while, well that’s okay. The important thing is that we know the rules. We know how to keep them. And we know when we are breaking them. If we choose to break them, we do so intentionally, because it serves a different purpose than the one the rules fulfill.

So it is with writing.

One of the things I that really drew me to the editing field was rules. I admit, I love rules. Having clear boundaries and knowing I’m staying within them releases some kind of endorphin rush I thoroughly appreciate. But the other thing that really drew me to the editing field was the freedom to break those rules. Perhaps there’s a bit of an independent rebel in me that equally appreciates the endorphin release that comes with branching out, thinking outside the box, forging my own path. There is a joy that accompanies analyzing an accepted rule and realizing there is a better way to achieve an intended effect. And when one succeeds, it just might create a whole new set of “rules.”

Do you want to use “ly” adverbs profusely throughout your writing? Go for it, if it works. Do you want to hop from head to head instead of sticking with one point of view character? Why not? If it works. Do you want to use a flashback that lasts three pages instead of three paragraphs? I’m not stopping you, if it works.

But be aware, the rules are in place for a reason. Centuries of authors have gone before you and discovered that following the “rules” is what usually works best. Writing is not a selfish act. Lonely is the life of a writer who writes solely for his own eyes. The majority of authors write for others. The desire to reach the world with a piece of themselves drives authors to produce the best work possible.

Scripture says, “Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another,” (Romans 12:10). Sometimes preferring your reader above yourself means following the rules, painstakingly cutting apart your words and conforming them to the accepted parameters. Sometimes preferring your readers means venturing into the wilds of the literary untouched and unknown.

But if you think you want to march to the beat of a different drummer when it comes to literary guidelines, make sure you master marching to the communal drummer first. If you can’t write strong sentences without using “ly” adverbs, if you can’t get through a whole scene without leaving the head of a single character, if you can’t compose an effective flashback in a mere few paragraphs, then you can’t effectively judge whether your rule breaking truly “works.” Only when you’ve become proficient in the accepted ways to reach your readers will you be able to successfully make your own way.

Pleasant penning,

Rachel E. Newman, CP
Freelance Editor and Indexer
Certified Paralegal

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