I’ve been following a discussion on a writers e-mail list. Must writers follow all the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation or do the rules stifle the writer’s creativity?
Some writers consider themselves artists who can’t be restricted by rules, while others consider themselves craftsmen bound by conventions.
I fall in the middle – as noted in a previous post, a publisher has called me “the pickiest person she knows.” As an editor, I have to know and follow grammar rules or I wouldn’t have any customers. On the other hand, my writing style is informal and simple, and I usually don’t worry about all the rules that may be used in formal writing. For example, I don’t mind ending a sentence with preposition. Often it sounds more natural and understandable to do so.
In my view, there are several critical elements to good writing:
* The reader must understand it. Using the right word is essential. Using it’s when you mean its or using their or they’re when you mean there can confuse your meaning. Punctuation to show when sentences start and end is critical. Writers must follow some rules to ensure that their readers know what the writer is saying.
* The writing must be consistent. Some style guides call for serial commas (the comma before “and” in a series of three or more: bell, book, and candle). Other style guides say to leave out the last comma if the meaning is clear (bell, book and candle). If you’re writing an academic paper or a newspaper article, you need to follow the appropriate style guide. But if you’re writing a blog entry or an article for your Web site, you can take your choice of using or not serial commas. But whichever you choose, do it throughout the document. Writing “bell, book, and candle” in the first paragraph and “boys, girls and parents” in the second paragraph won’t work.
* The style of the writing must be appropriate to the subject and the situation. I’ve been editing an academic paper for a doctoral student – that paper is more formal and uses more “big” words than I use in my blog posts. An academic paper should demonstrate that the student has the vocabulary and the formal writing skill appropriate to the level of education. Depending on the purpose of the blog, posts should generally convey the message in a way that is easy and enjoyable for the reader.
* Dialogue should reflect the education and personality of the character speaking. An uneducated laborer shouldn’t sound like a college professor. But even if dialogue contains improper grammar, it should be punctuated correctly so it is easy for the reader to understand what is being said. And if a character speaks in a dialect, just enough of the dialectal spelling should be used to convey the impression without making it difficult for the reader to decipher what the character is saying.
Understanding the rules and knowing when you can break them is one of the hallmarks of a good writer.
Of course, since even good writers (and editors) are human, sometimes we all break the rules without intending to. Most editors say we can find everyone’s errors but our own. So if you see me breaking the rules … maybe I did it on purpose, and maybe I just goofed!