Forget Rules, Follow Principles

http://www.freeimages.com/photo/1209888 http://www.freeimages.com/photo/936476 http://www.freeimages.com/photo/787898Split infinitives.

“That” vs. “which.”

Punctuation inside or outside the quotes or parentheses?

One space or two after a period?

Rules regarding writing are nearly infinite. The Chicago Manual of Style outweighs my youngest child (and, perhaps, my first car.)

Rules are important.

Except when they’re not.

And that’s why principles trump rules.

If you are writing a technical manual, legislation, or medical procedures, you should adhere strictly to the rules.

If you’re writing for your own fans, your chosen audience, it’s far more important to consistently follow a set of principles.

Sentence fragments? Part of my style, now and forever. If your genre or personal style leans toward greater formality, ask yourself for a real good reason before you confuse your readers with what might appear to be sloppiness.

The emotional impact of my writing, fiction or non-fiction, depends much on matching my speaking style. My live presentations tend toward, er, liveliness. (One of Best Beloved’s tasks is to touch my elbow when she sees folks in the audience looking frightened instead of engaged.) I blurt half-sentences and stomp my foot sometimes.

You’ll never remember everything I try to teach in one of my classes, but if you go home inflamed with passion to implement the bits you do remember, we both win. My goal is to infuse passion, not just knowledge.

Storytelling is all about the vicarious experience. Contrary to what Michael Crichton’s pale imitators think, vicarious experience is not about teaching your readers the structure of DNA so they really enjoy your novel about cloning gone wrong. It is about reaching down their throat and hauling up the terror they’d feel if they were watching a clone of their Best Beloved committing some heinous act.

You do not need data for a scene where your wife brutally murders someone to kick you in the gut.

Facts. data, rules: these are not the stuff of a vivid vicarious experience.

When your readers swallow the last page in a gulp, overwhelmed with emotions you gave them, they will forgive any trespass against the tyranny of a style manual.

2 thoughts on “Forget Rules, Follow Principles

  1. “… any trespass agains the tyranny of a style manual.” Hey, I resemble that remark! I agree at least three-quarters of the way with you (which is why I had you drawn and quartered). You should never let fussy matters of style, often arbitrary and tied to what’s vogue, put formality’s opaque curtain in front of the vividness of visceral writing.

    But you should also ensure that the grammar/construction/expression engine is finely tuned, so that any narrative bullets fired in an accelerating tale don’t shoot the reader (and thus the author) in the foot. Or in the participle.

    Hey, are you feeling better?

    1. In reverse order:

      Yup! Stiffness in the operated knee, but off the pain meds for two days, but tonight I can have an old vine zin with dinner, so there’s that.

      Getting it right is what’s important. Taking a reader out of the story is no way to deliver that vicarious experience. Poor spelling or grammar, confusing threads, unreal characters all must be quashed.

      Once again it is a matter of knowing the rules before one can safely break them. Only when my readers know my superior spelling skills can I toss out the sentence “Rules; ah’m agin’ ’em!” and not be pilloried. At least, not by my fans.

      “Formality’s opaque curtain” is a lovely phrase.

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