Rules, rules, rules!

Picture of a Jackson Pollock at MoMA © Tomas Fano (https://www.flickr.com/photos/tomasfano/4272270477)

Picture of a Jackson Pollock at MoMA © Tomas Fano (https://www.flickr.com/photos/tomasfano/4272270477)

In class, after the teacher finishes explaining a project, I am always the first to ask about a rubric. I relish those scales, which seem arbitrary to some – how can a teacher measure cohesiveness or quality? Despite the difficulty with measuring the value of some certain qualities and even the inherent subjectivity, I am drawn to rules.

Naturally, when I read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, I was thrilled to see a numbered list of writing rules:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

There are hundreds of books and articles that promise to transform a struggling writer into a PEN/Hemingway Award winner. Every writer, qualified or not, has offered his or her advice – “Ten Tips to Better Poetry” or “Five Rules For Fiction Writing”.

Often times, “rules” and creative endeavors do not mix. Following rules when writing can be painful. I end up crafting and recrafting a sentence in different iterations, molding it into so many different shapes until it becomes unmalleable like a piece of overworked gum.  But I can’t forget that so much of my writing is already shaped by rules. I use sentences, composed of subjects and verbs.

And, it is hard to think of some artistic greats following rules. We laud the innovations of Jackson Pollock. Jack the Dripper broke all the rules and cashed in on the results. But what some forget is that Pollock attended Los Angeles’ Manual Arts High School where he learned basic art skills.

I believe that most writers, especially teen writers, should be focusing on producing high-quality writing, not innovative writing. And rules for writing, especially from those innovative writers who have established their voice, such as Orwell, can help guide a young writer like myself to success. I know this may be seen as an antiquated view. I, however, think of writing as an art. Visual arts students begin their careers copying from the great masters of their time. They tirelessly recreate paintings hung on museum walls, learning to work with a wider brushstroke or a thicker coat of paint . It is only after mastering these fundamental skills do artists begin to develop their unique style.

I believe that finding my writing voice can work in much the same way. As I learn imitate various styles, I can arrange authors’ idiosyncrasies into a unique permutation that is my own writing voice.

Rachel TroyDo you have any hard and fast rules for writing? Or are rules meant to be broken?

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  1. My only rule as I write is to spell correctly, use correctly, be grammatically correct, write like a reader, and serve the story. A writer is not only a story-teller, he/she is an example of respect for the language and the reader.

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