Breaking the Rules

Rules, rules, rules! Everywhere in writing we encounter rules. Grammar and punctuation, structure and point of view. Anton Chekhov warns, "One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep."

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which is on many lists of must-have books for writers, includes these Elementary Principles of Composition to keep our prose tight, precise, and clear.


·         Choose a suitable design and stick to it.

·         Make the paragraph the unit of composition.

·         Use the active voice.

·         Put statements in positive form.

·         Use definite, specific, concrete language.

·         Omit needless words.

·         Avoid a succession of loose sentences.

·         Express coordinate ideas in similar form.

·         Keep related words together.

·         In summaries, keep to one tense.

·         Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

Some rules we follow blindly, some we blatantly flout. How do you know when it’s best to follow the rules and when you can ignore them? What should you do when it appears that two rules contradict each another?

The key is understanding the rationale for the rule.

My law school experience helped me to understand this concept. Laws do not exist for their own sake, but to support the principles of society. Although legal systems don’t always work perfectly, they are based upon underlying values that states or nations find important. Government statutes govern day-to-day circumstances, and principles are the foundation.

Here’s an example: Certain contracts must be in writing and signed or they are not enforceable. These contracts include those for marriage, the sale of land, and the sale of goods over the amount of $500. The law does not require written contracts for all agreements, but only those deemed especially important.

The rationale for the rule is that a written and signed contract will prevent, or at least make less likely, false claims for breach of contract. In important contracts, it is considered to be vital to have these things in writing in part because it is hard to prove the elements of an oral contract. There are, however, a few exceptions to the rule. For example, if a person admits or begins performance of an oral contract, then there is evidence that an agreement was actually made. The point is that, when the rule supports the rationale, it is applied; when the rule doesn’t it is laid aside.


It is the same in writing. Generally, rules are set up for clarity, for the reader to understand precisely what it is that the writer is trying to convey. For example, Writership’s own Jennifer Hritz doesn’t use quotation marks for dialogue in her books. Most people do; she doesn’t. This example is from The Crossing.

When I turn I find his gaze sharp and alert, like he's thinking I might be hiding a firearm underneath my sweater. Lighten up, I say, I'm just thinking aloud. I lean back against the window, my palms on the sill. The glass feels cold; I can feel the chill through my clothes. How often do you think about suicide? he asks. I've spent the past seven years picturing my mother with the barrel of a gun in her mouth, I remind him. Do you own a gun? he asks. No, I say, But I'm sure I could find one if I put my mind to it. Have you ever thought about purchasing one? he asks. No, I say, sighing, And I'm not really going to jump from the window of your office either. Given your family history—Bryan starts. I'm a perfect candidate, I finish. You said yourself that you've spent the past seven years thinking about your mother's suicide, he tells me. That doesn't mean I've been planning my own, I say. How far have you gotten? he asks.

Even though Jennifer uses no quotation marks, the dialogue is clear.

Here is another example. How often have we heard that writers should show, not tell? Writers are urged to eschew explanation and describe details that convey the same meaning. Chekhov noted that, "The broken bottle neck glitters on the dam and the mill wheel casts a black shadow," is better than "It was a moonlit night." Showing allows readers to inhabit the characters’ senses and experience the story through them.

At the same time, telling is sometimes the better choice when the writer wants to convey the passage of large amounts of time, build a world (as in fantasy or science fiction), or convey motivation. Also, endless description can become wordy, piling adjective upon adjective onto the structure of the sentences. Sometimes, it is better to cut to the chase.

There are many other instances in which following your own path is a perfectly legitimate and preferred thing to do. A deeper understanding of the rules allows you to make your writing your own, without undercutting precision and clarity. So tell us, where are you rebellious? What are your favorite rules to break?