When is it Okay to Break the Rules?

I still remember my first ethics question in school. At fourteen, it truly made me think. After college ethics classes and intentionally annoying professors (I like to argue exactly the opposite of what I’m supposed to) I realize it wasn’t much of a challenge. My teacher asked, “Is it okay to run a red light?” Of course, we said it wasn’t. “What if someone is in the front seat bleeding to death?” We all agreed it would be okay to run the light in that case.

(Actually, I think what I said was that we should have called an ambulance in the first place. After being told that I was missing the point, I decided to run the red light. I feel sorry for my teachers sometimes, but at least I keep things interesting.)

Rules in writing are just like that red light. Hopefully without the impending death. Or hopefully with only metaphorical impending death at least. There are two elements to our simple red-light problem:

(1) knowing what the rule is, and

(2) knowing why you are breaking the rule.

Those two statements seem so obvious that we never stop to consider them. Furthermore, what does driving have to do with writing? Simply: everything. Everyone has the ability to get behind the wheel and make the car move; everyone has the ability to sit behind a piece of paper and make squiggly lines into words. Not everyone can drive and not everyone can write. The ability to form sentences does not equal the ability to write any more than putting a car in neutral and letting it roll down the hill equals the ability to drive.

It would not be okay to run a red light because you did not know you are supposed to stop. To learn to drive we must practice, be attentive to the world around us, and above all, know the rules. Writing is no different. We must learn the rules and tools that fit into our style. There are racecar drivers, truckers, commuters, poets, novelists, journalist… Each one has essentially the same skill, the same rules, but different goals.

Once we have learned where the stoplights are and why we should stop there (because if we don’t learn to use our stops we will have a terrible accident on paper) we can consider situations in which we can break the rules. It is not enough to know what the rule is; we must know why we are breaking it.

I recently read an excellent book titled Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The author seems to have sought our rules simply so he could break them. Truthfully. It is also very clear that there was a reason for every choice.

A writer does not put words on paper, but forms those words into ever more complex structures—phrase, clause, sentence, paragraph, chapter, novel… By all means, break the rules. Some of the most successful books are purposely broken rules. But we must not allow ourselves to break the rules from ignorance, carelessness, or impatience.

NEXT WEEK: The Single Goal of All Writing


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