Saturday, April 14, 2012

Knowing the Rules to Know When to Follow Them

I can’t say for certain that my experiences are common. I once had a cast of college students who once thought I made up the word, “Chagrin,” despite my belief that it was a pretty well known term. Some writers never take a writing class, and just because others have doesn’t mean they’ve been told with the same advice. So when I say we all have heard the phrase, “Know the rules to know when to break them,” it’s really just an assumption.

The expression comes hand in hand with a list of regulations that are sometimes, but aren’t always, true. Teachers will say something along the lines of, “Only use said,” or “Never use said,” and find the overwhelming response, “Joyce doesn’t do that!” So they pass off this popular idiom as an easy way to continue the lesson.

Proving to someone that there is a problem is the hardest part of teaching and even essay writing. We have to establish that global warming is a real thing before we can establish that it’s important and then establish our solution is the best solution. You have to prove to the student that his work is boring, then prove it’s because he’s condescending, then prove that the solution to the problem is really to take out all of the adverbs. Is that the only solution? No. Is it going to work? Only maybe. But the only real way to tell is by trying it.

The problem with telling someone that these rules are meant to be broken is that it indicates they’re not really true. It feels as though there are separate laws for those who suck and those who don’t. This means, of course, to follow the rules would be admitting their own amateur status, which would also reveal to the reader their own amateur status, which is never to be desired.

The problem with these laws is, one, they are blanket solutions. To rid a story of adverbs isn’t going to make a bad book into a great one, and a story isn’t fantastic except for the adverbs. However, putting on airs, being condescending, and over explaining things tend to be common faults of a lot of books, and getting rid of the –lys of the group is a singular solution that someone can offer up without actually reading a specific work and taking the context into consideration.

Understanding these common pieces of advice is important because they often can be helpful. The issue is not the advice itself, but how it requires the student to apply his own context. It puts the responsibility on the author to reexamine his work. Not an issue in a working-world situation because every writer will have to reexamine his work. In a class room setting, though, the teacher is expected to be instructing the student to help him understand how to reexamine anything.

Self awareness is the most important and hardest part of being a writer, and it usually can be expedited with the input of other people. But being self-aware is harder when someone is trying to make twenty people self-aware at the same time.

The biggest problem with these rules, however, is the blatant repeating of them without consideration. The advice, “don’t use passive sentences,” for example, is fairly common. In Stephan King’s On Writing, he only puts in three suggestions, which is “don’t use adverbs,” “don’t use passive sentences,” and “don’t have crappy dialogue.” (There is a reason it’s not utilized as a text book.) A passive sentence is a sentence in which the subject doesn’t do anything: “There was a chair.” What did the chair do? It existed. Or, more often, “The body was carried from the room.” What did the dog do? Nothing. It had things done to it.

The thing about passive sentences, however, is the fact that the term isn’t self explanatory. A person can’t say, “Don’t use passive sentences,” and have a listener know exactly what he’s talking about. It is a phrase that someone invented, sounded good enough to bear repeating, and has been repeated over time. You will not hear this advice given in “their own words,” which means that whenever the advice is given it is being repeated, which indicates that it is not something that many people have come up with on their own. Any “true” advice is rediscovered again and again, where as this advice, however, just seems to be repeated again and again.

Like a game of telephone, the suggestion becomes warped—the reasons for it, what it means—and it becomes even harder to explain to someone why, and more importantly, when, they should use it.

Most writers are of two schools: listen and do without question or become abrasive and refuse the suggestions at all costs. I am, as probably has been made obvious, of the latter. From my point of view, if a rule is there to be broken, then it’s not really a rule at all.

I would, however, like to be of the few who can spectrum it, who can take advice at face value, ignore the way it is said, and take it for its merit, not for the person who is saying it. I do believe that every suggestion comes from a place of truth. It could be warped by misunderstanding, biases, or outright lying “because the ends defy the means,” but, on some level, a person created it with some sort of understanding.

Therefore, I go by the opposite belief. The rules of writing aren’t there to be followed until the author decides they shouldn’t be—there are too many of them and too many inconsistencies and contradictions to even consider that—but the author should do what works until it doesn’t and then go back to the rules. In either case, he must figure out the problem on his own, but in the second scenario, at least he is not making changes that do nothing for the better or the worse.

In the end, the rules are there to solve problems. Figure out the problem, and you can better determine if that “rule” truly is the right solution.