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  • Writer's pictureTessa Barron

Writing "Rules." Should We Stick to Convention?

Updated: Jan 19

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Any fool can know. The point is to understand. — Einstein
The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. — Socrates
If watching 'House' has taught me anything, it's that you should always be on the lookout for blood in your stool. — Alex Ganon
Warning: This post is a hearty meal.

I'm going to start this post talking about a western novel: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

Why am I talking about a western novel for our fantasy/sci-fi/horror blog? This book could easily be classified as a horror, and it is by many people. I found it nearly fantasy the way it all seemed like a lucid nightmare.

At first, I thought this book was a series of graphic events with the purpose of making the reader sick to their stomach, but boy, was I wrong (...and right. I was still sick to my stomach)

There is a LOT I can say about Blood Meridian (Amazon affiliate link) regarding this series, and I touch on it briefly in the latest Fair post here. But for this one, I want to focus on something I didn't like about it. Actually, I'm not sure I didn't like it. It worked for what it was, and I see what McCarthy was doing. It worked in his favor...I think.

But it took me for a loop at first and made the book an asshole to read until I got used to it.

So, what IS this thing I speak of?

Drumroll.....No quotation marks!!

None. Thankfully, there were still dialogue tags every once in a while to let you know someone was speaking at all, sometimes part way through the conversation that you didn't notice was happening.

It was rough. I eventually stopped caring to figure it out. Reflecting on it now, I think that was maybe McCarthy's intention. Adding to the nightmarish, disjointed feel of the whole thing. Like it didn't matter who was talking. Hell, he didn't even give the main character a name (just referring to him as "the Kid").

But struggling through this book got me thinking about something else that has been on my mind quite a bit lately: that is, convention.

How important is following standardized writing conventions anyway?

Us writers are also artists, after all. If anyone can push the boundaries of the expected or acceptable, it should be us.

But maybe you don't subscribe to the idea of Author as Artist. Perhaps you think of yourself more as a service provider. It's your job to write what readers want in a way they expect and consistently give it to them over and over like any other product producer?

Maybe you are somewhere in between and consider yourself a craftsman and an architect tasked with creating something beautiful and unique but solid and built on tested foundational principles.

Most of us probably think somewhere along the lines of the latter. Norms are there for a reason, aren't they? Readers expect certain conventions when they read (like me, expecting quotation marks around dialogue). They create clarity and ease.

Unlike in many Foul posts, I'm not going to make an argument here one way or another. Mostly because I don't know which side of the argument I land on. Today is more of a question for all of you. And I think it is a question of why we write in the first place.

To make money? You better learn the conventions of your genre and stick to them.

To make art? Then who gives a shit? Throw it all out the window.

Somewhere in between? Figure out what you're comfortable with, and decide when you have gone too far. Just maybe, don't be surprised if some readers feel some sorta way about it.

Perhaps the issue I had with Blood Meridian was that it was too much too fast (although in the end, I was on board, so perhaps not), but maybe when pushing boundaries, writers need to inch the reader into it to not shock the boiling frogs. It is also a matter of your particular goals for your specific book or scene.

Blood Meridian was written almost entirely to convey a specific tone and pace; everything not contributing to that be damned, including punctuation.

If you were writing a book that needed clarity to be understood because your goal is to move the plot, convention might be your friend.

If editing has taught me anything, it's that there are NO RULES when it comes to writing.

Surprising, perhaps for an editor to say, but it is true. Sure, there are style guides which will keep your writing consistent, but there are by no means definite universal rules for writing (other than getting something on the page!) It is up to writers to make these decisions for themselves—whatever they feel their writing warrants.

Now we enter the history lesson portion of this post. Do you know where your precious grammar and punctuation rules come from? Did you know in the not-so-distant past, there really weren't any?

I mention this not only because the English etymology and history fascinate me but because I think it's an essential perspective on language that modern writers are missing. Language is a tool used for self-expression at its core. And what writers like Cormac McCarthy can teach us is that while rules are great for creating clarity, they leave little room for art.

Every rule can be broken. We put too much emphasis on being grammatically perfect, this convention and that. And worse, we look down our noses at anyone who would dare break such rules as if they are time-honoured traditions. But in fact, they are quite a new phenomenon.

Tudor England and the Grandpappy of Modern English, Shakespeare.

Shakespeare is credited with inventing or introducing around 1700 words into the English language. And too many for me to bother counting idioms and phrases like "As luck would have it," waiting with "Bated breath," or speaking of something as the "Be-all end-all."

Granted, we can assume that many of these words or phrases were probably already used in the spoken language, and Shakespeare's works are only the first written down instances. On the other hand, we also know that Shakespeare had a knack for creating words by adding suffixes or prefixes to existing terms or just plain inventing words that still would have made sense to contemporary audiences.

Something like how calling someone a "Karen" nowadays makes complete sense to a modern internet-savvy audience, needing almost no formal explanation for the term. The first time I heard Karen used in its current context, I went, "yup. That makes sense."

I have an immediate image in my head of "Karens" I've known (not Karens but … "KARENS"), and even almost felt a sense of relief for being able to finally put a word to something that I couldn't really explain before but felt. (Ok, I could explain it but not to polite company.)

That might just be my feelings. Who knows, maybe all of you out there needed a full definition of Karen before being able to understand it, but I doubt that.

Shakespeare was also great at giving terms to things that his audience felt/understood almost intuitively, which is why he was able to invent words successfully. In my never humble opinion.

The fantastic thing is that we still use the words and phrases attributed to Shakespeare even today; frankly, the English Language would not be the same without him. He was a genius by every definition of the word, and his legacy is unlike any other.

I'm sure Shakespeare was hardly the first or last to use language liberally. But I bring him up as an example because he is a remnant of a time before Style Guides, a time before editors and modern publishing houses and English grammar, punctuation and other language standards we have today.

The Standardization of English.

Interestingly, around the time Shakespeare was living large, experimenting with the English language, movements and governments were beginning to standardize English into accepted norms.

These norms were based on the English used by the high society of London and the East Midlands. But of course, there was never one decided standard that ever became universally used. And today, we have British English, American English, Australian English, South African English, Irish English, Canadian English, Scottish English, New Zealand English, and Caribbean English, just to name the ones I have the energy to name.

And inside those standards, we have the ever holy style manuals that keep grammar and punctuation and word usage consistent for writers...more or less. We have style manuals for general writing, legal writing, academic, journalistic, and so much more.

There are different style manuals within those categories for each English standard and country. That is broken down even more with house styles inside individual publishing houses and organizations.

It is no wonder things can get a little confusing for the average writer about what is right and wrong. What is a rule, and what is merely a suggestion.

It's almost funny to me that considering this, people still have the gall to email me and tell me that this is wrong, this is misused, you cannot have a capital after a colon, you can't spell color with a 'u'.... :/

And even if they are correct for one writing style, they are often not valid for the standard we are using. For instance, Canadian English, the Chicago Manual of Style, and our own house style that dictates specific usage concerns in our books...

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers. — (2 Henry VI, 4.2.59), Dick the Butcher to Jack Cade.

Actually, the first thing we do is kill all the grammarians. As an editor by trade, perhaps I should shut my mouth and thank the universe that authors are still convinced that they need us...jk they do.

I will never advocate the abolishment of standardization and style manuals. Still, I also think that we are doing writers a great disservice by convincing them that they are hacks if they do not have every comma in the technically exact spot.

....If they use "however" in the middle of the sentence rather than the beginning or the beginning rather than the end, they are the devil.

...If they capitalize the wrong word...

And we have been increasingly tyrannical in our views of grammar and usage. I bet if you were to ask a vast sample of western English fiction writers how important being technically accurate (according to the accepted style manuals) is to their published works, they would all say "pretty damn."

If you were to take that same survey 100 or even 50 years ago, you'd get a very different answer.

Writers like Jane Austin wrote under the paradigm of punctuation for pause and rhythm rather than for syntactical precision. Marks like the comma and the period have their roots in poetry. The period denotes a full stop, and the comma indicates a half-stop. Read Jane Austen (or even books written in the 1970s), and you will see commas and periods still at work in this way. The idea of specific rules, such as a comma separating two independent clauses, etc., was not regularly practiced.

I blame the schools for separating writing from its meaning.

Some may not know this, but I got my start editing academic papers. Never will you come across more words with less meaning. Academic papers (whether in the technical or social sciences) are filled with so much superfluousness that they lose all purpose of language:

To convey Meaning.

I fear that much of the fiction we see now is leaning toward the same fate. Not because it is pretentious, not because the words aren't clear, or the story isn't eventful. But because the words have lost their symbolism. It's why modern writers struggle so much with showing and not telling. Classical works are often used as examples of telling prose, which I find laughable. Because showing in a real sense is about using language to create an image. It is not merely how many adverbs a writer uses. It involves tone, rhythm, symbolism, emotion, and, MOST importantly, meaning.

The classics often do a far better job creating images than modern stories. The proof is in how long they have lasted. They last because they have unlimited amounts of meaning. And that is inherent to the language. How many modern novels will take their place alongside the classics in the future? Can you think of any?

What's worse is this idea that the past was telling, and modern books are showing. Therefore books from the past are examples of bad writing, which is nothing more than dangerous! It believes that the past has nothing to teach you. I can't count the ways that perspective can go wrong.

That is not to say that the modern era has nothing to add to the discussion. It has plenty.

It can also be a good thing that we want to be clear in our writing. We are perhaps thinking more of the reader's ease than writers had in the past. I worry that we've become too hyperfocused on rules and use them as a bludgeon against those who dare to think outside the rigid box we have made.

It's the reason we have developed these weird "controversies" around language. The only reason they exist, in my view, is to make two sets of writers, those in the "in crowd" and those in the "out crowd."

The "Hopefully" Controversy.

You may or may not have heard about the drama around the word usage of "Hopefully."

Now, I don't want to get too much into the technical around this. Honestly, it bores the hell outta me. But because others have decided that they will die on this hill, let's review it quickly.

'Hopefully' is a word that came into usage in the 1630s to mean: in a hopeful manner, with grounds of expectation for success.

Around the 1930s, the word started to replace "it is to be hoped that" at the beginning of a sentence. The issue is that it might, in some circumstances, confuse the clarity of a sentence if a human subject is included.

For example: Hopefully, John gets dressed.

Are we hopeful that John will get dressed? Or is John getting dressed with a sense of hope?

To this day, Purists are adamant that an English writer CAN NOT under any circumstances use hopefully in this way.

Proponents of the change in usage say….why the F*** do you care?

Other notable controversies include The Oxford Comma, Irregardless, Ending Sentences with Prepositions, LOL, Gender Neutral Pronouns, Split Infinitives, and Passive Voice.

Write a tweet to the #writingcommunity with your opinion on any of those topics, and you're SURE to boost post engagement.

You're welcome.

Ok, we now know how much this topic can get pulse-poundingly intense and high adrenaline. You might be wondering……...why does any of this matter?

Because if you haven't guessed yet by everything I have said so far, the industry we find ourselves in is a pretentious one.

Alright. I'm being unfair. But whether any of this matters is really at the heart of concern around word choice. Not diction as it relates to your story and characterization. But rather word choice as it relates to the words you choose to use to express yourself—who you are. Your author voice.

You might feel that all this focus on style and technical correctness detracts from the creative process. On one side—you might say that none of this really matters. Testing the boundaries of agreed-upon standards is necessary for the evolution of language.

Something I do agree with.

On the other side, you might say that it is the most important thing, and you are obligated as a writer to uphold the agreed-upon rule. Conformity to industry standards is necessary to develop your authority as a professional rather than an amateur.

Something I also somewhat agree with.

Ultimately, I side with Steven Pinker's assertion (our affiliate link to his book on writing style) that writers need to adopt the style and rule system or lack thereof, that suits their goals the best at the time. Hopefully, this will allow you to reap the benefits of both schools of thought.

So, in conclusion. I wrote this whole long post to tell you that it's just fine if you continue to write 'all right' as 'alright,' aight?



Tessa Barron is the Editor-in-Chief at Foul Fantasy Fiction and Bear Hill Publishing. She specializes in developmental editing and writes Fantasy and Science Fiction when she is able to find the time under the pen name Turi T. Armstrong.


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