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Is Perfection Possible?

May 10, 2017 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 10, 2017

Recent comments in one of the other articles here at The Editor’s Blog have touched on writing and grammar rules and the disagreement even among rule experts about those rules.

I want to remind writers and editors alike that while there are plenty of rules that help us communicate with readers, there is legitimate disagreement about some of those rules.


Can anyone know every grammar rule? Possibly. But that doesn’t ensure that the knowledgeable writer or editor will turn out an entertaining or even a clear piece of writing. Rules help us frame our writing, but they are only aids—we have to bring other skills to stories and articles and books.

Good writing requires more than the knowledge and application of rules. It requires subject matter expertise. It requires imagination. It requires creativity and a sense of rhythm, a sense of balance. For fiction, good writing requires knowledge of what makes an entertaining story. And sometimes good writing means that we bend or shatter rules to promote a style choice.

Learn the rules of grammar and punctuation, please do. Learn the rules about the fiction elements and the recommendations for genre. But don’t only memorize those rules—develop an understanding of why certain practices and options became rules. Learn the purposes behind the rules and the effects created by following and breaking rules.

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Rules became rules partly because someone way back when noticed that if we followed a certain practice, our audience would immediately know what we meant. For other rules, some writer or grammar expert noticed that a particular grammar choice created a certain effect.

Rules made communication easier while also allowing writers to influence readers.

Sure, many of our rules are based on the language patterns of Latin and other languages without much thought behind them apart from matching what was used in those languages. (An investigation of that issue is beyond the scope of this article.) But even so, rules are intended to clarify communication. The rules exist to help writers (and everyday speakers of a language) convey their message in a way that readers understand and in ways that touch readers emotionally or get them thinking or responding. Rules keep readers from having to guess what is meant by a passage of text. Rules give readers a level playing field.

When you learn rules to help you write or edit, push beyond the law of the rule to understand what happens when rules are kept and what happens when they’re broken. Knowing the purpose of a rule allows you to anticipate what might happen if you broke or bent the rule. Use the effects of rule keeping and rule breaking to create stories that fascinate readers.

But while you’re learning rules, don’t let the intricacies of or the contradictions about the rules frustrate you. Some rules are valid for only some situations. Some rules come into play only when another rule is used or not used. Some supposed rules are not rules at all and can be safely ignored.

There are no absolutes in writing, and there are always exceptions to rules.

Use rules to help you put forward the best writing project that you’re capable of at this moment, but don’t let rules tie you in knots.

If you don’t know a lot about grammar and punctuation rules or much about the fiction elements, I suggest that you give yourself an education in both the mechanics of writing and the craft of fiction. Don’t only look up rules when you don’t know how to handle an issue or a beta reader tells you about a problem. Get yourself some good writing resources and read them so you can learn rules before you need them. Learn how to use your tools.

If you’re going to be writing fiction beyond just a few short stories for your own entertainment, invest in The Chicago Manual of Style. If you use British English rules, buy New Hart’s Rules. If you’re new to writing fiction or to editing, or you intend to self-publish your fiction, buy my Magic of Fiction. I don’t mind promoting my own book here—I wrote it for writers and editors as a help for when help is needed.

Take advantage of other books on writing and grammar. There are dozens and dozens of great ones out there—my own bookshelves attest to that.

Use the Internet to ask questions of other writers and editors, but check multiple sources. Again and again I see bad advice—wrong advice—in writing forums. I’ve also seen wonderful advice that would be useful to any writer. Just verify what you learn by checking a handful of reputable sources.

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After all the checking and following of the rules, will you turn out a perfect product every time? No, not likely. As an editor, I’m a perfectionist. (At least in this one area; don’t ever expect my office or car to be neat.) But I (eventually) came to understand that no long writing project will be flawless, at least not in terms of the grammar and punctuation rules. Yet I still strive for perfection. But I’m human, as are the writers I work with. We don’t know every obscure rule. We sometimes miss typos. We sometimes disagree over rules. We sometimes flout rules for a reason only to be charged with making the wrong decision by a reader. We sometimes choose to adhere to one rule even though doing so makes following another rule impossible.

The major goal of writing isn’t to create a book, story, or article without error, although we certainly don’t want errors and reducing them in a project is one goal. The major goal is to craft a piece of writing that communicates to readers in clear ways and in ways that move those readers. Yes, following rules fosters clear communication, and the more consistent we are with rules, the easier the read for the reader. But you can only do your best.

But that means actually doing your best, not your so-so.

If you’re ignoring rules because you don’t care to learn what helps to strengthen your writing, that’s a different issue. You can choose to ignore rules, and readers can choose to ignore your offerings. If readers can’t make sense of what you’re saying or they’re not fascinated by the writing, it’s not their fault if they put the book or article down.

Learn more about writing rules. Learn the reasons for the rules; knowing reasons behind rules should help you adapt if you have to work around a rule. So if you intentionally break a rule, make sure that you don’t inadvertently cause a problem that following the rule would have prevented. Thus you might have to make additional adjustments if you break a rule. Think ahead. Look for potential problems of rule breaking.

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Are you bothered by a particular rule or by opposing rules? Share your frustrations or tips in the comments.

edit well #2 83797AA0F48D684CBAC54FBF163B9699

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Tags: ,     Posted in: A Writer's Life, Grammar & Punctuation

15 Responses to “Is Perfection Possible?”

  1. Peter says:

    “Rules are made for the guidance of wise persons, the obedience of fools!” (Unknown)

    • Peter, that’s a good one. I found it attributed to both Harry Day, a World War I pilot, and Douglas Bader, a World War II pilot.

      • Peter says:

        Thank you Beth! I should have done that research! We learned the saying in high school, but not the source! I can see why a fighter pilot might want/need to bend the rules!

        • steve lowe says:

          Re: Douglas Bader, he, of course, is famous for have lost both legs performing a stunt at too low an altitude during peacetime training — despite all the warnings not to. He can therefore be cited as someone who deliberately ignored *all* the rules, all the time and is a shining example of the kind of ‘jerk’ who would come out with the kind of dangerous quote like that above. Rules are generally *broken* by fools, in reality (as we all know) :-)

          Cheers,
          Steve

  2. Excellent post! When I’m editing, I try to read like a reader first. I only start citing the rulebooks when the story isn’t working. The rules give me helpful tools for guiding the author in the right direction and for explaining why certain choices might have led them astray. The same applies to my own writing.

    • Janell, I agree that rules are great tools to help us explain our edit suggestions. I also like that we can so easily show the effects of using a rule, modifying a rule, and breaking a rule. A few humorous examples of dangling modifiers are a memorable lesson.

  3. Beth…your book is in my library…one of my favorite resources! Great post…thanks!

  4. phil h says:

    I went to see a Picasso exhibit. It was a lot of Picasso. But right in the middle was a large, beautiful and “traditional” portrait of his wife Olga. He asked her if he could paint her portrait. She said, Yes, and intimated that there would be hell to pay if she couldn’t recognize herself when he was finidhed. So there she was, a beautiful Russian ballerina, painted beautifully.

    “Learn the rules like pro, so you can break them like an artist.” – Pablo Picasso

    But as has been mentioned, in art blue and green make yellow. In writing, an em dash is pretty much up for grabs. It’s all in how it’s used to tell your story, no matter how confining or frustrating it may seem. Thanks for the consoling words, Beth. We all need to hear them sometimes!

    • Steve Lowe says:

      We have a comedian in the UK called Ken Dodd, a large part of whose act consists of parodying other people’s song lyrics etc. He’s like the UK version of ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic :-) Anyhoo, Ken always says that: “To be able to parody anything, you first have to be able to do it properly, yourself.” He’s actually a brilliant singer, who had No.1 hit singles of his own back in the sixties :-)

      Cheers,
      Steve

  5. The process of being published can introduce you to style choices that don’t line up with what you understand to be hard and fast rules. I recently got galleys from a prominent lit mag that has been publishing stories for more than forty years. Where I wrote the word “okay”, I spelled it out—with a single exception, in a description of a flip phone having an OK button. The magazine style sheet calls for all “Okays” to be written as “OK”. My reaction? “When in Rome . . .” Though I’m not sure how I would react if they wanted to change an “All right”, to “Alright”. ;-}

  6. Steve Lowe says:

    Hi Beth,

    Well, now you mention it…

    I share Phil’s frustration about a lack of clarity/consistency in the rules of punctuation from the other thread on quotation marks. And while it would be better if all kids were still taught the rules of grammar (so that everyone was equally aware of what those rules or conventions are) there are still some ambiguities… One source of difference is the use of dashes between BrE & AmE.

    As you know, I’m British, and I recently let my writing be edited by an American. She wanted to replace all my BrE dashes — which are like ‘double-length’ hyphens that do *not* connect with the words either side — like so — with longer AmE ’em dashes’ that *do* connect with the words either side—like so—(which you probably already know). MS Word has two sets of punctuation rules, whether you choose BrE or AmE, so you get one or the other.

    We agreed to differ and I left my BrE dashes as they are, since my primary readership are British, after all (though I’m considering publishing in the US as well). But after looking into it, it seems that the shorter dash, with spaces either side, is actually the more modern usage. I checked, and my copy of Beatrix Potter’s ‘Tale of Peter Rabbit’—published a century ago in London by Frederick Warne—still has the ‘old-fashioned’ ’em dashes’ used in AmE. But it seems that the two ‘dialects’ diverged sometime between 50 & 100 years ago — as I’m over 50 and was always taught to use the shorter BrE dash.

    I’d also have to say that I think the shorter BrE dash — with spaces either side — make more sense, since the purpose of a dash is to separate two adjacent words; which is diametrically the opposite function of a hyphen, which is to join two adjacent words together.
    A hyphen combines two words, like double-barreled or hyphenated-words. But a dash is meant either to create a slight pause — as an alternative to a comma — or to act as an alternative to a quotation mark — He said, hopefully, authoritatively — for those looking for a form of parenthesis that indicates a thought or indirect speech :-)

    As for ‘Alright’ or ‘All right’, I don’t think any editors can agree (I always use the former, btw). But the most annoying thing of all is that these rules keep damn well changing all the time :-) Why is ‘Alright’ corrected to ‘All right’ (by some editors) but nobody ever touches ‘Altogether’. And hyphenated words in general (another pet hate of mine) keep losing their hyphens each year! I’m always putting hyphens into words that don’t need them as I’ve always gone by the maxim that I’d rather have one & not need it than need one but not have it (the same principle works with other things, like Kleenex) :-)

    Cheers,
    Steve

    • phil h says:

      Oops…I use Em dashes for one reason only and that is for — Huh? Oh, yeah. Interruptions. If a conversation trails off, or stutters beyond the most reverent comma, I drop in my old friend (friends?) the ellipses. That Grammarly constantly reminds me are unnecessary…But, you know? What the heck. And like above if I find a aside too much to drop as an adverbial analogy or adverb driven metaphor, I consider it parenthetic. I have no idea how legal any of those applications are, but it keeps my writing clear in my own mind. I probably overuse italics for phrasing but I spent my life around music, so dropping italics is like that ff that comes and goes.

      That al vs al right thing. Y’all worry that one. I figure for usage. “I got the boat to stop leaking.” “Alright!”
      “Is your car fixed?” I got it all right yesterday.” Or “How’d you do on the test?” “Alright”= “I passed” “All right” = “I rocked it”

  7. I believe that grammar rules still need to be taught in school. But I’m a geek. For creative writing, I agree Beth, that if we break grammar rules, there needs to be a reason so that the reader is not lost in a bad way in our story.

    As always, thanks for an informative post. I’ve shared it online.