“Any fool can make a rule. And every fool will mind it.”
Henry David Thoreau
“If you obey all the rules, you’ll miss all the fun.”
As in any field, rules abound in our discipline. There’s the “show, don’t tell” rule, for example (see Budding Writers), and the “avoid adverbs” rule. Some of these may be useful guidelines, but some seem to inhibit creativity instead of fuel it. It’s also hard to know who came up with them and why following slavishly them is a fruitful strategy.
Thumbing through A Writer’s Coach, favorite writing guide of mine, I came across some “rules” that professor and seasoned journalist Jack Hart would like to see retired. Here are a few to ponder:
Rule to retire: Direct quotes must appear in separate paragraphs. As Jack puts it: “True, we create a separate paragraph for the words of each speaker in a dialogue. But what does that have to do with direct quotes?” If the direct quote flows from the text that introduces it, then there’s no reason break the introduction and quote into two separate paragraphs.
Ex: Brady leaned into the bar, cranked his head to the right, and spied the bartender twelve stools down. “Bring me a beer and a shot,” he bellowed.
Rule to retire: Never begin a sentence with “And” or “But.” As Jack points out, “and” and “but” are coordinating conjunctions — and so are “or,” “yet,” and “for.” You can start a sentence with any of these words. That said, “and” and “but” can be overused as sentence openers and if you don’t lose anything by deleting them in your final draft, then you may be better off axing them.
Rule to retire: Don’t split infinitives. The “split infinitive” didn’t exist until the late nineteenth century, notes Jack, who adds, “The ban on its use, according to Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, ‘has never had a rational basis….the consensus in the twentieth century is that the awkward avoidance of the split infinitive has produced more bad writing than use of it.'” So, Captain Kirk, it’s A-OK “to boldly go” wherever you want!
Any writing rules that you’ve found to have “no rational basis?” I’d love to know. Write on!