Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Writing 101: No So, Ands or Buts?

Writers have to follow a lot of rules in self-publishing. You have to be careful about using brand names, avoid common mistakes that could screw up your formatting, properly separate your chapters and scenes. But should you be adhering to the common rules of writing as well?

The Rules of Writing

Ever worked with a professional editor, or tried to submit an article or story to a magazine? If you have, you might know that they strictly follow certain writing rules. And frankly, they follow a lot of them. But for the purposes of this particular lesson, we're only going to be talking about one: paragraph beginnings.

Editors are trained to gnash their teeth when they find a paragraph that begins with the words so, and or but. Try to submit an article using these words at the start of a new paragraph, and they're likely to mark up your work with their famous red pens. They don't even like it when you begin a regular sentence with these words.

BUT, you aren't writing an article that has to pass muster with a professional editor. You're writing a book that you're publishing yourself. Are the rules still the same?

The Way We Write

If you start looking, you'll find countless examples of books containing sentences and paragraphs that begin with and, but, so, because and all those other words that English teachers say you shouldn't use in this position -- in fact, you can even find it in the Bible (the best-selling book of all time). Using a conjunction can even make your story flow better at times, linking different paragraphs and sentences smoothly with each other.

Using common conjunctions and linking words can bring a certain informality to your writing, and that's important for fiction novelists because your main goal is to entertain the reader. Stiff, formal language often comes across as stilted, and that might make your reader uncomfortable.

However, if you do it a lot your writing is going to read as choppy.You also have to avoid writing sentence fragments, as opposed to whole sentences. Unless you're using it as a specific literary device for some higher reason, your book should only contain whole sentences and you should always avoid sentence fragments. A sentence fragment is an incomplete thought, and it can throw off the tone of your book.

Because she'd woken up late, she had been ten minutes behind all day long. And she was in a hurry.

She had been ten minutes behind all day long. Because she'd woken up late. And she was in a hurry. 

Can you spot the sentence fragment? She's in a hurry, and even with the "and" sort of throwing the sentence off, it's still a complete thought. "Because she'd woken up late" is not. There's an easy way to spot sentence fragments in your own work. Read each sentence separately, isolating it from all the sentences that surround it. If it doesn't make any sense at all, you've got yourself a fragment.

Playing by the Rules

BUT, you can still adhere to all the traditional rules of formal writing if you like. To avoid starting sentences and paragraphs with conjunctions, use words that mean the same thing. Instead of writing and, try using moreover or furthermore. So can be replaced with hence or therefore. Replace but with however. Your writing will immediately take on a more formal tone when you use these words, but that may suit the story you're telling.

When it's your book, you're the one who makes the rules. If it reads well to you and conveys what you want it to convey, forget about grammar rules and tradition. Most of the great writers completely ignored the rules whenever they wanted to, so there's no reason you can't do the same.

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