Guidelines, Not Godlines

I cringe whenever writers and editors start talking about “rules.”

What I really love about these rules is that there's never anyone around to enforce them.

What I really love about these rules is that there’s never anyone around to enforce them.

The real problem, though, isn’t the innocent little word “rules.” It’s that so many of us grow up thinking that rules are not to be broken. If we break them, bad things will happen. We’ll get a big red X on our paper. We’ll flunk the course. People will laugh at us.

Bending the rules is possible, of course, but it carries the tinge of unethical behavior, if not outright sleaziness.

Instead of rules, I think of conventions and guidelines.

Conventions and guidelines are worth knowing. They’re worth knowing well. They help you write better, and — probably more important — they help make what you write comprehensible to others.

But guidelines are not godlines. They are not graven in stone. Lightning will not strike you dead if you adapt them to your own purposes, or ignore them completely. If you ignore them too completely, however, readers may ignore your writing.

grammar policeCome to think of it, this is yet another way that writing and editing are like driving. Some people observe speed limits and use their turn signals because they’re afraid they’ll get a ticket if they don’t. True, they might — but seriously, how many cops are on the road at any one time? Not enough to ticket more than a tiny percentage of scofflaws.

Most of us figure this out pretty damn quick. We observe speed limits less for fear of getting caught speeding and more because they make it easier to control our vehicle. We use turn signals because they reduce our chance of getting rear-ended.

Learn the conventions and guidelines. Respect them. Internalize them. But bowing and scraping and trembling in fear are all optional. Guidelines aren’t godlines. The choices are yours.