Children ask me this all the time.
- They read a story in which the writer starts a sentence with “because,” something they have been forbidden to do. “So why can’t I start a sentence that way?”
- They read a conversation in which someone uses the word “gonna.” “So why can’t I do that?”
- Their teachers tell them every paragraph needs five sentences and every essay needs five paragraphs. But I show them editorials or columns from newspapers which don’t follow these rules. “So why can’t I do thatt?”
- They (used to) learn cursive, but they’d see an adult’s signature composed of part cursive, part printing, and part illegible writing. “So why can’t I do that?”
We adults break the rules of writing all the time. Using bullets, as I did above, is technically breaking the rules of paragraphing, yet bullets add white space and show a pattern of thought. Bulleted items are usually short and easy to read. They invite reading the way denser paragraphs do not. Why not break the paragraphing rules if more people will read what we write and the writing is clear?
With children I suggest the following line of thinking about “rules” of writing.
- Will I get in trouble if I break the rule? Usually, this means, Will my teacher lower my grade if I break the rule? If the answer is yes, then follow the rule unless you have a mighty good reason not to and are willing to accept a lower grade.
- Is your writing easier to understand if you break the rule? If the answer is yes, then break the rule. Clarity outranks any stylistic tradition. But usually rules were invented to add clarity.
- Are you experimenting? If so, follow rules which make sense and ignore rules which inhibit your imagination.
Some of you might say that my “line of thinking” above is really a set of rules. Yes, they offer guidance the way rules do. But no, they are not hard and fast, and they allow the writer to choose his own rules as long as he can live with the consequences, the way adults do.