John M Donovan
Three Writing Rules It’s OK to Break (Unless You Don't Want To)
Updated: Sep 6, 2022
The other day one of my imaginary fans sent me an email that asked how I could call myself a writer if my blog never had any entries about writing. I beg your pardon, I replied—in the last six years alone I’ve written well over three blog entries that cover a defense of the serial comma, a story of how naïve I was when first trying to find a publisher, a writing contest judge’s comments on Fluffball!, and an essay on how dumbfounded I was to learn that some people don’t read prologues.
No, not like that, the completely fictional correspondent wrote back—I mean like lists of commonly misspelled words and lists of commonly misused words and lists of hilarious dangling participles.
Oh, I replied. That’s not really my bag. You can find such lists pretty easily with one of these new-fangled search engine type thing deals.
But it got me thinking about grammar rules and style books and people who have to write things for work even though they hate it and live in constant fear that their fourth-grade teacher is going to return from the grave and slap them silly if they break some “rule” that was already archaic back in her day. Yes, I know you exist.
It also got me thinking that I break a lot of these so-called rules in my own writing and not one person has ever registered a complaint. That’s because I only break rules when following them would impede communication or slow the reader down. Or when I just don’t like them.
It might also be because not that many people read my books.
Be that as it may, he went on blithely, here’s a list of three rules I break with impunity and which you can too if you have a mind to.
Rule Zero. Let’s just get this one out of the way first: Stop worrying about split infinitives. It’s okay to do it and in most cases you’d be crazy not to. Also, it’s no longer necessary to put two spaces after a period. Oh, and don’t listen to anyone who says you don’t need the serial comma. (Please visit the blog entry “And Now, A Message from the Serial Comma Promotion Board” for my reasoning.)
Rule One. Remember how you were taught to write dialogue?
“Ted Cruz seems to have no principles or human decency,” said Bob.
Vern replied, “Yes, it’s almost like he ran for office so he could rake in a nice salary while doing nothing but tweeting laughably hypocritical nonsense.”
Notice the comma before the word “said” and after the word “replied.” That’s what we were taught. Gotta have a comma there. Why? Because that’s the rule. Why is it the rule? I don’t know. But I know why I feel comfortable breaking it in the second example. See, I’ve always said that punctuation is the written word’s attempt to mimic speech. The comma represents a pause. Sometimes a very short pause but a pause nonetheless.
Read this next example out loud and you’ll find you’ve paused quite naturally (and ever so briefly) at the comma:
“It’s quite irresponsible to lie about election results,” said Bob.
But let’s reverse the sentence and see how it sounds with and without the comma:
Bob said, “It’s quite irresponsible to lie about election results.”
Bob said “It’s quite irresponsible to lie about election results.”
The sentence flows better without the comma, without the pause, and that’s what you’ll find everywhere if you ever undertake a grammatical audit of one of my novels. I always use the comma before “said” but never after. I just think it flows better.
Rule Two. Remember when they said you couldn’t start a sentence with a conjunction? You can. And it really keeps your narrative moving. Picture it: You’ve just read a sentence. The sentence is complete. You know it’s complete because you saw the period. But wait! A sentence with a conjunction at the beginning has just appeared! It grabbed your attention because now you know you’re going to read a thought that continues the thought from the sentence you just finished!
And that’s why I see no harm in starting sentences with conjunctions. Truth to tell, I’m hardly an iconoclast in this regard. Most writers do it and in fact the Chicago Manual of Style says it’s fine. So this rule is such a non-rule you might not find it all that exciting to break.
Rule Three. Remember how we were taught to abbreviate Mister, Doctor, Missus, and so on? Throw in a period! Mr. Dr. Mrs. But guess what? The British disagree and so do I. I write “Mr Smith,” “Dr Adams,” “Mrs Miniver,” etc. (I wouldn’t even have put a period after “etc” if it hadn’t been at the end of the sentence.) But Dono, American grammar purists might argue, that’s just how we do things here. Well, maybe. But periods get paid to end sentences. That’s their number one job. I don’t think we should ask them to volunteer their time in abbreviations where they’re just in the way. I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to suggest that no reader has ever read “Mr Smith” or “Dr Adams” and said “Who’s Mur Smith? Who’s Dur Adams?”
Note to self: Character named Dur Adams. Think about this.