What can a mouse and a pigeon teach us about writing? I shall enlighten you.
Did you ever watch An American Tail as a kid? It’s about this family of Russian-Jewish mice who escape to America (because “there are nooooo cats in America!“). The little boy mouse, Fievel, gets separated from his family and meets up with a pigeon (Christopher Plummer), who sings this long song in a French accent about how you should “never say never, whatever you do.”
And I want to sing that song at the top of my lungs every time someone posts a list of “THINGS YOU SHOULD NEVER EVER IN YOUR LIFE DO WHILE WRITING OR ELSE YOU WILL NEVER GET PUBLISHED AND YOU MIGHT POSSIBLY BURN FOR ETERNITY.”
Can I tell you a secret?
There is no recipe for writing.
There is no rule book you can follow to have words come together in combinations that will electrify your reader. Not even the Chicago Manual of Style. (Gasp!)
Listen, there’s “proper” grammar and “proper” syntax and plenty of rules on how to use English “correctly.” I studied all these things in school. I used them in editing. I understand their importance.
But I defy you to find any author with the slightest shimmer of brilliance who hasn’t defied those rules somewhere in her books. Madeleine L’Engle. Charles Dickens. JK Rowling. Neil Gaiman. Louisa May Alcott. Harper Lee. Lois Lowry. They all break rules.
So should we just throw all rules out the window?
Not at all. See, there’s a balance. Write a book following all the rules of standard English, and you have the lamest textbook ever written. Write a book flouting all the rules of standard English, and you have the most unreadable trash ever written.
But follow the rules most of the time—keep your writing in check most of the time—lull your reader into a false sense of security—and then, when something needs to stand out, when you need to draw attention and make a point, you tear that list of rules in two and you drive your words home in the style that’s coming out of your heart.
So next time you start to doubt your writing because some random person in the wide world of the Internet posted a list of arbitrary rules, don’t. Start singing in a Christopher Plummer French accent and go on your merry way, leaving a trail of broken rules behind you.
How do you feel about rules? Are you a die-hard prescriptivist? Are there any “rules” that you think are particularly dumb and useless?