There’s a type of question I get every once in a while that always surprises me. Here are a few:

  • My teachers in school told me you should never begin a sentence with “and.”
  • Isn’t that incorrect?
  • Isn’t that a run-on sentence?
  • My teachers in school told me you should never begin a sentence with “and.”
  • Isn’t that a fragment of a sentence?
  • Isn’t that breaking the rules?
  • Shouldn’t you fix your contractions? You don’t want to sound so informal, do you?

These questions surprised me because early on I learned that the best writers regularly break the rules. In fact, in every art form, from painting to sculpture to writing, one of the rules is to break the rules.

However, there is one dirty secret about breaking rules. I think it’s this secret that enables us to chide Stephenie Meyer and our eighth graders for not following the rules all while celebrating James Joyce for basically writing the book on rule breaking.

CS Lewis

Rules are Whatever Educated People Say They Are

The author and Oxford professor, C.S. Lewis, received a lot of fan mail from children, and in between his writing, teaching, and meetings with the Inklings, he somehow made time to reply to them. Very admirable. Will you write to your fans when you are famous? Or has blogging replaced fan mail letter writing?

Anyway, he sent one such letter to a young, budding writer on the subject of language. He says:

About amn’t Iaren’t I and am I not, of course there are no right or wrong answers about language in the sense in which there are right and wrong answers in Arithmetic. “Good English” is whatever educated people talk; so that what is good in one place or time would not be so in another. Amn’t I was good 50 years ago in the North of Ireland where I was brought up, but bad in Southern England. Aren’t I would have been hideously bad in Ireland but very good in England. And of course I just don’t know which (if either) is good in modern Florida. Don’t take any notice of teachers and textbooks in such matters. Nor of logic. It is good to say “more than one passenger was hurt,” although more than one equals at least two and therefore logically the verb ought to be plural were not singular was!

C.S. Lewis had personal experience on the evolution of language. At Oxford, he taught Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and if you’ve ever read the Faerie Queene, you know how much different the language was in the 1500s.

But Did you catch that? C.S. Lewis basically said rules, in language, do not exist (except, perhaps, as some sort of illusion created consciously or subconsciously to control the uneducated). Rules in language are whatever educated people say they are. If you can break the rules and still sound smart doing it, you’re set.

I think one of the reason we give Stephenie Meyer such a hard time about not following the rules is because junior high girls are reading her, so she must not be very smart.

Cormac McCarthy, on the other hand, can break every rule in the book, but because he’s so smart we don’t know what he’s saying half the time, it must be okay.

Is This Unfair?

Maybe. Maybe not.

I’d like to proclaim freedom over all of you to break the rules when you want, but I don’t think that will help you get published or read. Instead, let’s create a new rule, based on Stephenie’s experience:

If you’re writing books for smart people, break the rules. If you’re writing books for junior high girls, don’t.

PRACTICE

Let’s do some free writing today.

Write about whatever you want (your day or your feelings about “the rules” or work on your work in progress). Write for fifteen minutes. When you’re finished, post your practice here in the comments section.

And don’t be afraid to break a few rules.

Joe Bunting
Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let’s Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).