Taking aim at my fellow editors

I’m always a little put off when I hear writers—let alone editors—pooh-pooh the (admittedly misnamed) rules of style with advice about not being hidebound by rulebooks, etc. My least favourite must be the chirping nonsense about how “everyone should craft his own style,” which is usually a transparent attempt at magically transforming bad grammar and convoluted syntax into self-expression. No one in poor health claims he’s got his very own brand of healthiness, but every bad writer is special in virtue of his want of syntactical sense.

What got me going on this was a comment by Karin Cox over at David Gaughran’s Digital. She advised a writer against worrying too much about rules. She’s not the only one to go down this dark road. Mark Nichol, who does Daily Writing Tips, should have known better than to make this list of breakable rules. Rules 5 and 6, for example, never were rules of grammar; they’re guidelines from the APA’s Publication Manual to avoid ambiguities that arise in the complex sentences filled with abstract words that one finds in scientific papers. The rest are just good guidelines for people developing their writing—notice that he doesn’t argue that they aren’t?  Then there’s the guy who hocks get-rich-quick-writing courses. Yeah, he was making so much money selling his pen he developed courses to sell to you…

But I digress. Karin’s cringe-inducing remark was this: “slavishly following arbitrary ‘rules’ can make writing stilted.”

I don’t think she’s unique in thinking this. In fact, I think editor schools probably teach these sorts of bromides as a way of pandering to writers. Who knows, maybe the indie revolution has so reversed the dynamics of things that editors feel compelled to pander to writers’ worst conceits.

Whatever the case, it’s nonsense because you’re always following rules when you write, even when you’re trying to break them. You hear that you wily rebels? There’s no such thing as breaking the rules because the rules are patterns, people. Patterns! And what you’re doing when you’re breaking a rule is exchanging one pattern for another pattern—which, I will guarantee you, will strike the reader as far more “stilted” than the pattern yielded by the “rules.” All you need to do is look at bad books.

But the best analogy is architectural. Modern and then postmodern architects wanted to break away from the old forms—the old rules had to go—so they did, and we got the skylines of North American cities that people love so much they go to Europe to get away from them. Oh sure, people love New York. But what they love about New York is old New York and the transitional phase between the older forms and the modern, like the Empire State Building, the Met. It’s not those lovely black glass spires that they can see at home in all their ingloriousness.

Now get ready for the next shocker: avoiding those bad patterns is part of the reason behind the codification of those rules in the first place.

— Say what? You mean the people who thought up the rules knew more about writing than me, the guy who took up writing fifteen minutes ago? No way! Grammar Nazis made those rules, man, and they’re just made for breakin’!  

Get over yourself. Forget the phantasm about big bad spoiled sports who invented rules to spoil all your fun. Only a child believes in this sort of nonsense—for that matter, it’s even unbecoming in children.

And now that you’ve taken a moment to shed that skin, embrace the rules, master the forms and fly little eaglet, fly!

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