Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Dr. Strangegrammar or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Break the Rules

Blaugust day 4

I have no formal college education as a writer. No English degree adorns my office wall. All I have is a love for the language, and a love for the art of writing.

I've considered myself a writer since reading "A Wrinkle in Time" some 20-ish years ago. That book tickled my imagination in a way none had before, and I knew I had to create something that could do the same for countless others.

Early on I listened to my teachers. They taught me the rules that all writers had to follow. These were rules that could not be broken by anyone that wanted to be successful.

  • "Never start two consecutive sentences with the same word."
  • "Do not start a sentence with a conjunction."
  • "Don't ever end a sentence with a preposition."
  • "Infinitives should never be split."
  • "Insert a comma where you would take a natural pause."
And so, all through elementary school, I went along with it. Rules are meant to be followed, not broken. My prose was the most uptight stuff you'd have the pleasure of reading. My desire to break the rules that I knew shouldn't be broken led me down the path of poetry.

Poets broke rules all the time! They were the rebels of the literary world and I wanted to be a part of that. My high school writing career was spent, outside of assignments, on writing poetry. Bad poetry, mind you. I've found some of my old notebooks recently. Let me tell you there is some awful drek in them.

I gave up writing after high school. I'd been duped into false promises of publication in poetry collections a couple of times, and nobody seemed interested in my prose. So, because I don't handle failure well, I just quit. It took five or six years for me to get back to writing semi-seriously. By that point I'd read a lot of books by a lot of different authors and I'd learned one thing:


Yes, there are best practices and you still need to follow certain conventions. Just writing whatever you want without following the basic linguistic rules of English will end in terrible prose 99% of the time. And yet there are many famous authors that did just that. Cormac McCarthy is known for his omission of quotation marks. I'm personally not a fan of it, but it's his style. He follows his own self-imposed rules. That is far more important than following the rules some elementary school teacher tried to shove down your throat.

Once I got a taste of freedom my writing flourished. It still wasn't good, but it was mine. It only started to become good when I started working as a technical writer four years ago. Suddenly I had actual rules to follow; ones that weren't just imposed by a teacher. Technical writing has its own conventions—which I really do want to cover in detail later on—that really can't be broken. You have to be succinct and you have to be blunt. I've absorbed those same rules in to my prose.

Gone is the flowery, over-indulgent language of my youth. I write for a purpose now, not just for a word count. I've got first drafts of both a novel (~53,000 words) and a novella (~24,000 words) waiting for rewrites. In the meantime I continue to work on molding my style into a functional one. I want someone to read what I write and say, "Yep, that's the Ehlers style." If you're like me now, or like me when I was young, don't give up. Keep pushing yourself and soon you'll see the fruits of your labor.


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