There is nothing harder for a true believer in the Word, than discovering that you might be guilty of serious blasphemy. Such was the case for me while an acquaintance was reviewing a manuscript for me. I was informed that you can’t use contractions in the narrative. This came as quite a shock to me. It must be a truth written down somewhere. This friend has been alive and writing for longer than I have and I have always bowed to his wisdom. I assumed he made a more serious study of such weighty Writing matters than I had.
Though I have been a dedicated disciple of Writing (capital W because it is the one and only true way to live) for decades and have never heard the commandment:
- Thou shalt not form contractions in thy narrative.
While debating this commandment with my fellow Writing theologian, I was exposed to yet another: you must get the punctuation right.”
- Thou shalt not use improper punctuation
This seems a very sensible commandment, right? I mean you.wouldnt.want.something, strange…to happen–with your sentence (through improper use of punctuation). Except… When the dialogue or the paragraph calls for it. I mean–em dashes and ellipses are the best thing in the world!!!! And must be used!!!!
We continued our theological discussion on what the proper use of punctuation, contractions and even my overuse of conjunctions (which I admit freely). And then we went off on commas.
- Remember the comma to keep it holy
The one thing I knew about commas is that there are a zillion rules about them, that they have changed regularly and the one thing everyone says after all the rules is, no matter what the rules are–don’t use too many commas.
We were so into the argument that we didn’t add all the other “Thou Shalt Not” Commandments of Writing that are always quoted:
- Thou shalt not start a sentence with a conjunction
- Thou shalt not start a story with dialogue
- Thou shalt not use too much dialogue
- Thou shalt not use too much description
- Thou shalt not write romance
But my friend was adamant. The judges from the contest won’t even look at my manuscript with all the formatting, punctuation and rule-breaking I was doing. I was so upset by this that I asked my editor what the rules are I should be following and he confirmed what I thought about all the Commandments of Writing:
Personally, I think you can use punctuation however you want as long as it serves some purpose in terms of rhythm and pacing. I don’t believe in rules just because they’re rules. As long as you know what you’re doing and why. Probably half the people I know agree with me. Another half agree with strict grammarians who want specific rules followed.
It depends entirely on how the judge will view it.
But who is a writer to listen to, Readers, Writers, or Editors? None of them know who the judge is going to be. It could be someone like my friend or someone like my editor.
I don’t think writing has had a “Messiah” yet to come and fulfill the Commandments and offer some clarity on what should now be done with the various and contradicting scriptures on writing. I do know there are a plethora of prophets out there to confirm whatever Commandment you find particularly important. I think my friend and those who cling to (the latest edition) “Elements of Style” are rather Orthodox. May the God of Writing bless them. I am not a heathen, I don’t think. I still follow basic rules when it comes to commas, em dashes and ellipsis. I still like to use the computer pen and paper to write. Protestant Writers, reforming and following reformers who prefer Chicago Style have all kinds of additions and updates to older styles. There are Pagans, following whatever mythical muse and Writing God blesses me with his(or her) favors, but most writers look down on them as uninformed.
I swear I am following standard forms of writing you can find in any top ten bestselling novel. The Orthodox tell me I am wrong, the Protestants tell me I have added to the scriptures because they can’t find it in the Chicago Manual of Style, not even in the latest edition. The Orthodox just feel sorry for me because they are certain I will be rejected at the gates of the Publishing House. Pagans try not to snicker at how I believe in personal revelation when it comes to writing.
I must be a Mormon.
6 thoughts on “Thou Shalt Not – Commandments of Writing”
Yup. I once adhered to all the rules (I was a book editor for 2 years and we editors must obey the commandments) but the more writers I met and the more novels I read the more I realized that rules are made to be broken – as long as it’s done intentionally and not out of sheer ignorance.
I tend to be quite strict about rules (I even use ‘whom’ in conversation) because I’m a pedant. However, I see the rules as a starting point of sorts, a common ground for writers and readers. They exist for a reason, to facilitate communication and understanding, but also because breaking them has no value if the writer or the readers don’t know the rule is being broken.
Er, why shalt thou not write romance? Should we page Jane Austen and tell her that she broke that commandment as well?
I think that “know the rules to break them” applies here. If you’ve got the chops – if you can write clearly and correctly six ways from Sunday – then you should move on from that. Every writer should know the rules before they break them, and then, I believe, every writer should try. If all of the stories have already been told, then our charge is simple: tell them all over again, but better this time.
Of course, I’m a writing Pagan, so there’s that.
Most writers break the Commandments of Writing. Every writer is a God in their own little world with complete control over it. It’s kinda hard to lay down the law to them in their own world, don’t you think?
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