Break those rules

A friend of mine told me about a friend of hers who was just starting to write her first novel. Her writing teacher told her that chapters should never be more than 800 words.


This is prescriptivist NONSENSE. 

I’m wary of anyone who’s laying down hard-and-fast rules for writing. Writing is such a subjective practice and so ripe for experimentation and subversion and play – it’s way too slippery for rules and absolutes. 

I'm silently correcting your grammar

So when writing or grammar prescriptivists, trying to enforce a set of rather arbitrary rules, say “you can’t…” or “you must” with no consideration of the particular circumstances (looking at you, people who say singular “they” is unacceptable even though it’s been around since before plural “they”), a writer can push back and say “why?” If they can justify not using it, then why should they? The grammar or writing police aren’t coming.

The ones that really get me are the ones that aren’t even enshrined anywhere! Just advice that has become so commonplace that no one even knows how it got started. Things like “get rid of all adverbs,” deleting all instances of “that” (sometimes you actually do need the “that” for the sentence to make sense!), only using “said” instead of its synonyms in dialogue tags, splitting infinitives, not starting a sentence with a conjunction. Grrrrr to all of these.

Look, I love good grammar (I mean, of course I do—I’m an editor!), but I will be the first to admit that there are some times where certain rules of grammar that should apply just won’t, especially when writing fiction. And I will fight you about an Oxford comma, but if you really, really don’t want one, then okay. It’s a preference, not a requirement. Unless the style guide I’m using specifically prohibits me from using something, I can do it as long as I stay consistent in my use.

Also, as an editor, it’s my goal to maintain your voice – I don’t want to be so rigid in following rules that I end up take out the quirks of your writing that make your voice unique. There are style guides and standards to follow, sure, but there’s always wiggle room. Being consistent is much more important to me than being grammatically correct all the time.

English is a damn mess of a language and it’s ever-evolving. Trying to impose rules on it will never last long. So, as for those rules? “Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own” (Bruce Lee).


What is the worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

I’d love to help you break the rules with your own writing - let’s work together! Drop me a line here and we’ll chat.