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.

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6 thoughts on “Guidelines, Not Godlines

    • What I’m trying to say is that many of those “rules” aren’t rules at all, especially where style is concerned. “Subjects should agree in number with their verbs” — that’s a rule, or close enough. “Don’t split infinitives” and “Never end a sentence with a preposition” — those aren’t rules at all, but all too many writers and editors get nervous about “breaking” them. I’m planning to blog in the next day or two about Strunk & White’s famous “Omit needless words.” It’s actually not bad advice — but bad things happen when it gets turned into a rule. More TK!

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  1. Good post. I had someone who volunteered to copy edit one of my books and I made sure to tell her (as she hadn’t done it professionally) that fiction writers often break a lot of rules. Or what some people think are rules. πŸ™‚ As does much excellent non-fiction. Just recently, someone complained on a blog about fiction writers who make mistakes by starting sentences with “And” or “But.” Huh? I better toss out most of what I’ve written. πŸ™‚

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    • Nothing makes me cringe faster than a copyeditor who worries that the fiction she’s copyediting doesn’t follow the Chicago Manual of Style. Arrgghh! Chicago style was developed for nonfiction, and scholarly nonfiction at that. I could go on, and on, and on . . . When what a writer’s doing works, be grateful and move on to something that doesn’t work so well.

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  2. So true! I like your distinction between rules and guidelines. When I think about it, I tend to see rules as the things that people follow in order to be able to communicate with each other at all. We learn those just by absorbing language from others as we grow. The guidelines, on the other hand, are there to help us communicate more effectively. Both of these (rules and guidelines) depend on audience and environment. The more I go through life, the less comfortable I am with the the concept of “rules” that apply to everyone and everything. This is hogwash. As you said, be grateful if it works. (By the way, I love the blog title. Wonderful!)

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  3. This is a great way of putting it!
    “[G]uidelines 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.”

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