Breaking the Rules

Breaking the Rules  by Leslie Watts at


In the last few posts I’ve talked about self-editing: Can authors self-edit? What are some of the troubles we face? Which tools are helpful?

Self-editing is a challenge that raises resistance for many writers. Often, this mental block is rooted in a feeling of overwhelm: rules are everywhere. Grammar and punctuation, story structure and point of view. If that’s not enough, some rules contradict other ones.

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."

How do we keep our promises? How can we revise our stories to follow the rules? What if our writing doesn’t obey them and a story needs something different … can we break the rules? Before we decide, let’s break them down.


What are the writing rules?

When you aren’t sure of how to do something, you seek out an authority on the matter. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is on many lists of must-have books for writers and includes these Elementary Principles of Composition to keep your 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.

This is a great place to start (my copy with yellowed pages is well-thumbed), though I know it’s sometimes better to use the passive voice (for example, when you don’t want to reveal who is acting).  

If we’re talking about a great set of guidelines for stories, we can look to Elmore Leonard and his ten famous rules for good writing, which you can find in the New York Times.

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" ... he admonished gravely.  
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.  
  6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.  
  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.  
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I re-write it.

Again, it’s hard to argue with any of these rules most of the time. Elaborate dialogue tags distract the reader from the speech, which is the main event in a dialogue sentence. Too many adverbs weigh your prose down, and we often add them when we’ve failed to use strong, specific verbs. Prologues can include a mountain of unnecessary backstory, but they can also be a powerful way to open a book. (We talk about prologues in episode 96 of the podcast.) 

Even Leonard notes at least one exception to this general prohibition, and that helps us get to the bottom of how to apply them.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks . . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that . . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle . . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”
— Elmore Leonard

What is he getting at? Leonard encourages us to avoid things that are difficult to do well. 

Also, it’s tricky to explain how to use regional dialect effectively, even for writers who execute these maneuvers with style. The easiest and safest advice is to encourage writers to follow the rules. But as we find in life, rules have exceptions, don’t work in every case, and won’t help writers who want to experiment, innovate, and tackle challenging techniques. 

Some writers follow the rules without questioning them (akin to the upholders and obligers of Gretchen Rubin’s four tendencies); other writers flout the rules (like Rubin’s rebels). How do you know when it’s best to follow or ignore them for your story? What should you do when it appears that two rules contradict each another?

The key is understanding the rationale for the rule.


How the law breaks the rules

Law school helped me understand how this works. Laws don’t exist for their own sake, but to support the principles of a society. Although legal systems don’t function perfectly, they are based on underlying values that governing bodies find important. Government statutes cover day-to-day circumstances, and principles, found in documents like the US Constitution, 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 doesn’t 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. We want people to make contracts; they allow for the smooth flow of commerce. We want contracts to be enforceable. In important contracts, it’s vital to have a written document, in part because it’s hard to prove the elements of an oral contract. 

There are, however, a few exceptions to the rule. For example, if a person admits that a contract was formed or begins performance of an oral contract, then there is evidence that an agreement was made. The point is when the rule supports the rationale, it is applied; when the rule doesn’t, it is laid aside.


Breaking grammar rules: quotation marks

It’s the same in writing. Rules are set up for clarity: we want the reader to understand precisely what we’re trying to convey. But if we can express what’s in our minds and hearts while doing things a bit differently, according to our personal style, then we’ve broken the rule but stayed true to the underlying principle. 

Here’s an example: Quotation marks are a convention to show the reader when someone is speaking. Author Louise Erdrich doesn’t use quotation marks for dialogue in her New York Times Bestseller The Round House. Most authors do; she doesn’t. Here’s an excerpt from that novel.

We’ll get him, I said quickly. I was fearful as I said this, dizzy.
He took his hands away. Yes, he said again. He tapped his watch, bit down on his lip. Now if the police would come. They need to get a statement. They should have been here.
Which police?

Even though Erdrich uses no quotation marks, the dialogue is clear, and we can easily follow it. The principle has been met, though she does it in an unconventional way. Not every reader will like this, but enough of them do (or don’t mind it) to make this book popular with critics and readers.


Breaking grammar rules: telling, not showing

How often have we heard that writers should show, not tell? Drop the 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." And it is—usually. Showing allows readers to inhabit the characters’ senses and experience the story through them. 

But telling is sometimes the better choice when the writer wants to convey the passage of time, increase narrative distance, provide details about the world, or convey motivation. Endless description can become wordy and take up a lot of time. If the detail isn’t vital—perhaps the moon is not the most important element of the scene—sometimes it’s better to cut to the chase. 


How do you break grammar rules and other rules of writing?

You’ll encounter many instances when straying from the rules is perfectly legitimate and the better course. A deeper understanding of the rules allows you to make your writing your own, without undercutting precision and clarity. Understanding why you want to break a rule is important. 

Consider your ideal reader and the other tools I wrote about here as well. If a rule undermines your purpose in writing the story and your ideal reader will have no trouble following you, then you’re in a good position to stray from convention.  

If I were to give you one rule to follow it would be this: don’t blindly follow or disregard solid writing rules (even this one). Revise your writing with intention and attention because then you’ll have the best chance of delivering the spark that inspired you to tell the story. 

Now tell us, where are you rebellious? What are your favorite rules to break? What is the one rule you think no one should break?


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