In the world of writing teachers, there are two main camps: the Prescriptives and the Descriptives.
The Prescriptives guard the time-honored language traditions of the past to avoid the corruption and devolution of their native tongue. They know all of the rules of grammar, syntax and word formations, and care deeply about them. They fret over the correct usage of words like “whom” and “thereof”. They wish to prescribe the standards of language to ensure that we all speak and write properly.
The Descriptives say, “Get real! That’s not how people talk!” They codify what is currently happening within language groups and recognize the rules of different dialects as valid and uniform within their linguistic culture. They won’t cringe if you end a phrase with a preposition or say all y’all, but they still know what an Oxford comma is and dislike seeing apostrophes abused. They wish to describe the changing rules of speech and written language. (Note that they do believe there are rules.)
What on earth does any of this have to do with writing fiction?
Well, I’m in the latter linguistic camp (in case you hadn’t guessed), and in that spirit, I’d like to talk about why you should break some of the “old rules” before they squelch your creativity completely.
BREAK THESE RULES
#1 Use only real words.
There are some who say that if a word is not in the dictionary, you must not use it. Poppycock! That’s pure flibbertyjibbit. If a jumble of letters communicates an idea that is readily understood by the reader, then it’s a word. No matter how it’s spelled. At least when it comes to creative writing. I dare you to find flibbertyjibbit in a dictionary, and yet you know exactly what I mean, don’t you?
My bias in this arena may come from the fact that I am the parent of small children who invent new words almost daily. Many of those words become part of our family lexicon. For example, my son once complained that his vision got blibbery when he cried. Well, of course it does. So does mine.
One of my favorite ways to create new words is switching up the use of suffixes. Shakespeare did it, and I think he was on to something. The guy added something like 2000 words to the standard English vocabulary.
For example, why shouldn’t I say, “He unshouldered his back pack and took out a pen”? You can shoulder a back pack, can’t you? Why not unshoulder it? [Of course, as I write this article, the computer is marking everything with red squiggles. Clearly it's from the Prescriptive camp. Hmph.]
Another way to create new words is to play around with the parts of speech (which the Bard also did). You know, things like verbing a noun, as in when we say “Can you Xerox this for me?”
Or when I say verbing. (Again, you knew what I meant, didn’t you?)
Don’t let a dictionary–a finite book (or computer program)–tell you what does or does not convey meaning. Words are instruments for expressing ideas, and if there isn’t a word already extant for what you want to say, then you can jolly well make your own. If you use it in a familiar way or with clear context clues, readers will understand it just fine.
#2 Don’t use fragments.
And again, I say, Poppycock! Fragments can do all kinds of useful things for the whole tone of your writing. They make it conversational. They give it a sense of timing. They point up important ideas by setting them apart. Fragments (“sentences” that lack either a subject and/or a verb, or that begin with a conjunction) are like the oregano, basil and garlic in an Italian dish. You need them to give full flavor to a good piece of fiction.
#3 Use proper syntax.
This is about word order. Now, granted, if we all went around talking like Yoda (Speaks with reverse syntax, he does), it would get old. This isn’t a rule to break all of the time, but it isn’t something to shy away from, either.
Poets, especially, use syntax manipulation to their advantage to maintain rhythm, meter and rhyme. Consider this delightful poem by Dorothy Parker, that flips word orders back and forth seamlessly to make her point.
A single flow’r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet–
One perfect rose.
I knew the language of the floweret;
“My fragile leaves,” it said, “his heart enclose.”
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.
Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.
If those bolded phrases were put back into normal conversational syntax, the poem would lose its flow and fun. Go ahead and play with word order.
And now, in seeming negation of everything I just said, be sure to learn the traditional rules and know the difference between creative language and “real” language, otherwise known as Standard English.
Traditional rules of vocabulary, grammar and syntax do matter.
They are required for coherent communication with those not of your creative ilk. And they are generally required for any kind of formal writing such as school term papers, project research reports or business proposals. Language is a tool with which we craft our message, and we must become master artisans, knowing when to choose a traditional pattern, and when to experiment with new techniques.