Rewriting the Rules of Writing

Posted: January 7, 2014 in Writing Advice

It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature~The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

Spunk & Bite by Arthur Plotnik and Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark both make the claim that rules are meant to be broken to effect masterful, engaging style.

Spunk & Bite doesn’t dispute that there should be style but makes the claim that style should “capture attention in the swirl of divergent moods, trends, and affinities.” There must be a pliant structure existing within the rules that are allowed to be broken. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White , arguably is the go-to book for correctness, but it is a manual with an out-of-style attitude. Spunk & Bite promotes writing that rocks a cool, slick Plain English style so readers are forced to pay attention not because of proper grammar and usage, but because the words pierce the reader and make the ideas stick. Having writing with spunk and bite means the writer uses inventive language that stimulates the reader in an eloquent way. Plotnik advises using the following strategies:

  • conciseness
  • unexpected surprise
  • extreme over/understatement
  • effective word choice and vocabulary
  • sensory details created through metaphoric abstractions

50 Tools for Writers is an advice book with four basic parts beginning with the basics of sentence construction moving through a style guide section  and a text organization section concluding with objectives for being a productive writer. It’s an interactive book with exercises and “standards that are looser than those suggested in Strunk and White” that make you think about the best ways you can make writing happen.

My favorite suggestions from each section include:

  1. Let punctuation control pace and space: learn the rules, but realize you have more options than you think. (For another resource on punctuation check out Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss or Rhetorical Grammar by Martha Kolln)
  2. Get the name of the dog: dig for the concrete and specific, details that appeal to the senses. (Tell the whole story to inform and persuade)
  3. Build your work around a key question: stories need an engine, a question that the action answers for the reader. (Who has something at stake? What premise creates a thematic statement?)
  4. Draft a mission statement for your work: to sharpen your learning, write about your writing. (Engage in metacognition about your goals, format, and focus)
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