Wednesday, January 04, 2017

IWSG: Crazy Writing Rules

It's the first Wednesday of the month, which means hundreds of us will be posting about our insecurities. If you haven't yet, join in. You'll be glad you did!



Each month we have a question. This month's question is:

What writing rule do you wish you’d never heard?

This month's question is actually an easy one to answer. It goes all the way back to high school--to a rule many people still steadfastly follow today. The rule?



But, and, so... The rules say we can't start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. It's as bad as ending a sentence with a prepositional phrase. At one time, writing was more formal, making it normal to start sentences with words like however and therefore. Now that sort of writing sounds...well...stiff and off-putting.



You want to engage readers, not make them feel like they're working on their required reading for class. And guess what?



Or, as the Chicago Manual of Style puts it: "There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice."



When you write for five to ten different editors/clients on a daily basis, it can get to you, though. I had one publication editor who was old school. I was disallowed from ever starting a sentence with a conjunction, ending a sentence with a prepositional phrase, or ever, EVER using a "to be" verb.



An entire 500-word article without the words is or are? Try it. It's harder than you think! Even that rule shouldn't be followed strictly, though. It's designed to keep you from writing passive sentences, but not every use of a "to be" verb is passive. When I was writing for that editor, I found myself questioning every is I typed!



Some of the rules you learned in school may not be hard-and-fast rules anymore. It's important to look into it! The most important thing is that you don't start every sentence with a conjunction. That would get annoying!




But there IS one rule I can get behind:



If you subscribe to Writer's Digest, look for my article in the February issue:


74 comments:

  1. I've critique partners get on me about the and, but, and so rule. Now I know better! Although I was probably still overusing them.
    Try writing an entire book without a word ending in LY. I did it once. My critique partners made me put a few back in.
    Happy 2017!

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    1. I think a little of EVERYTHING is good...but not too much. Sometimes when you follow the rules too closely, you end up with stiff, formal writing.

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  2. Happy New Year,
    I am so glad you mention how the Chicago Manual of Style puts using conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence. Yeah! So many writers don't know this.
    All the best for 2017.
    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat Garcia

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    1. I once heard someone disparage people who begin sentences with conjunctions, yet he'd never mastered the art of apostrophes. (He'd write our's and your's--made me want to scream!!!)

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  3. Congrats on the article! I must admit, I love starting sentences with "But" for some reason. My daughter starts almost all her sentences with "No offense, but..." She might as well just say, "Hey, I about to be rude. Ready?"

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    1. I got into the habit of using "however" and "though" more, but I still have some buts in there, too. It's all about variation. And yes, I've known many people who say "No offense," then launch into an insult. Some will even say, "I don't mean to be rude, but..." Chances are, if you're saying that, you're being rude!

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  4. This is great, Stephanie. Grammar is so important, but bending the rules a little here and there makes for better writing.

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    1. I agree. It's a little difficult to read the classics because often they're so stiff. They don't read as conversationally as today's writing.

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  5. Love that Gretchen Rubin quote!

    I read your article in WD yesterday and had a note to tell you how much I enjoyed it. Well done! :)

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    1. Yay! Thank you!!! I knew I had to announce it soon because people were starting to email me to mention they'd seen it.

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  6. I think the only rule I follow anymore is that it's okay to break the rules, as long as you know what they are. How cool you have an article in Writer's Digest!

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    1. Right! You learn the rules in order to break them. Thanks!

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  7. I'm still torn on whether to use an apostrophe-s ('s) after a proper noun ending in s, or especially with a letter that sometimes sounds like s (z, x, etc). My editor insists that you should always use the 's, but I think it looks stupid, and I can cite plenty of examples where just the apostrophe is used instead. (ie, Chris' instead of Chris's)

    When the main character of my book is named "Fitz," this comes up a lot, so it's a pet peeve of mine.

    Sorry, tangent. Congrats on the Writer's Digest piece!

    IWSG January

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    1. Ahhh yes, that is for sure an ongoing argument. There are also different style guides. Some use the Chicago Manual of Style, some use the AP guide...and so on.

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  8. Great post. I love the point about "invented" rules vs style choices. I hadn't realized how many thing I took as gospel were just choices.

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    1. And rules can change over time. People tend to assume what their English teacher said in 1982 is still the rule today.

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  9. I think it's good to keep the rules in mind, and yet okay to skirt them too. It depends on the situation. I'd say you've done well so far. Congrats on the article in Writer's Digest. Very cool

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    1. I learn something new every few months, though. I finally figured out the difference between further and farther, for instance. I'd been using further for EVERYTHING!

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  10. Congrats on your article! I love starting my sentences with "but." I also use a ton of be verbs in my first draft. But I go back and question every single one. Did you see what I did?

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    1. Ha! I think as long as you go back and change them, you're doing well.

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  11. Holy potatoes, Stephie! Congratulations on your article. Gads, girl, that's a big accomplishment. Love how you snuck it in at the end. Happy New Year. Poohoo to rules! Okay, I don't mean all rules. LOL

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    1. Poohoo!!! I love that word. Thank you!

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  12. Hi! I'm new to your blog :) I'm trying to get back into IWSG and meet some new writerly friends. Congrats on your article!! That's awesome. I can get behind the No Offense rule, lol!! Nice to meet you!

    www.jessicatherrien.com

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    1. Nice to meet you! I'll check out your blog, too!

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  13. I firmly believe that in dialogue you can start a 'sentence' with any word you like because you are approximating speech and people don't follow rules when they are talking. Like, I mean, you know?

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    1. So true. In dialogue, all bets are off. As long as it seems conversational and is easy to read.

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  14. Loved your article in the SCBWI Bulletin, too! Congrats!

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    1. Thank you! Everything happened at once. I'm going to announce that one maybe Monday...

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  15. Congrats on your article and a very informative post. The rules are good but can make things a bit stiff.

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    1. I agree. It's all about readability. That's the most important thing.

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  16. Okay, I back that last bit of advice, and I'm totally with you. Starting sentences with conjunctions can place AWESOME emphasis on the subject of the sentence. Gives it more power. We LIKES the power. =) (And yes, that was likes, not like. Ooh! Look who's breaking rules now.)

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    1. I found that loading writing with "However," "Though," and "Although" immediately makes it awkward. Even with the articles I write for businesses, I try not to do too much of that. I don't think I start sentences with "And" for my business clients, but I start them with "But," definitely. Not EVERY sentence. And when you're writing for children, starting sentences with conjunctions definitely helps.

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  17. I'm always started sentences with And and But. On my blog and in my writing. Sometimes I like the effect it has.

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    1. Me, too! People who avoid it should try it. It's very freeing.

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  18. Rules can just get a bit too uppity sometimes. They are important but not always the only way to go. Happy 2017 Steph and your blog made my co-host list. Hi!

    QueendSheena
    2017 IWSG January Co-Host

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    1. Yay! I was co-host a few times, so I know exactly what you're talking about. I was visiting a few blogs at the bottom of the list yesterday and was surprised how many went to dead links or sites that aren't participating. I'm glad Alex has help every month, keeping that list clean!

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  19. Whether or not to begin a sentence with "and" has always been a conundrum for me. Also, at times I find myself writing really long sentences that I try to break into more than one sentence.

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    1. I try to mix it up. In editing, I watch for too many short sentences in a row. Same with too many long sentences. Often that stuff comes out when you're re-reading.

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  20. I keep Diane hacker and scott Foresman on board all the time, and have still found that I need to look up some things on the Internet for clarification, or something that may not be listed in the books. Old school is just that these days. Hugs...

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    1. I definitely look up things on the internet at times. It's SUCH a handy tool. Before the internet, writers relied on style guides that they kept close by.

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  21. It is amazing how rules in the past have changed, somewhat. Writing has changed quite a bit too.

    Congratulations on your article, Stephanie!!!

    Happy New Year!!!

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    1. They evolve over time. I think we get a little looser with things. People who swear by classic writing refuse to budge on the rules--but they also never get a book published because editors/agents find their writing stiff.

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  22. Hi Stephanie. Nice to meet you. I couldn't agree more. I find at times conjunctions can add power to prose. Key is selective use. Congrats on the article.

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    1. Nice to meet you, too! I agree...conjunctions definitely make storytelling more effective.

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  23. Ah, yes. I recently began starting sentences with "and" and "but" every now and then. I feel like such a rebel!

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    1. Yes, never too much! You can add in some Howevers and Thoughs to mix it up. It's all about variety.

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  24. OMG, I HATED the "never start a sentence with a conjunction" rule in school. It chafed. As soon as I was writing for myself, I started to do it all the time. Funnily enough, when I went back to school and had a professor who stated she didn't want sentences started with "and", it was easy to omit them. For that class, anyway.

    Congrats on the article.

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    1. Yep--the one client I had that refused to let me start sentences with conjunctions was that way. I just changed what I did for her. It did mess with my mind when I wasn't writing for her, though! I had one client who was always coming up with rules on the fly. He'd see we were doing something he didn't like and he'd blast an email to the whole group saying we would be fired if we ever did that again. Needless to say, I didn't write for him very long!

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  25. I've started sentences with "but" and I'm sure I've seen it in books I've read too. I read a lot of YA lit, so it's not uncommon for me to see something like...."Heather knew Luke already had a girlfriend. But still."

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    1. I read a lot of children's and teen fiction, too. Even when I was reading/writing romance in the 90s, it was widely accepted. So it was strange to me to meet people who still swore by that rule. I've found many of the writers who didn't go through the "training" I went through while in RWA often fall back on rules they learned in school...and English teachers aren't necessarily the most reliable when it comes to what 21st Century publishers want to see!

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  26. How can you possibly write anything without using is/are? I'm afraid I'd be reaching for the wine bottle instead of coffee when I got up.
    Happy 2017, Steph.

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  27. Congrats on your article!!!
    Happy 2017!!!

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  28. Great post, Stephanie! I'm glad that rule wasn't part of my consciousness when I started writing because I would've find it quite limiting. And annoying. :-)

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  29. Stephanie wrote a post for IWSG. And what a good post it was!

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  30. Hi Stephanie - great post and well done on the Writer's Digest article ... my rule is find your voice, be different and unique and follow the common sense rules ... but 'errors' - hit me like a ton of salt ... and I find I've done the same in my posts at times - some years later too ...

    Congratulations on a really useful post ... cheers into 2017 - Hilary

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  31. I'm a grammar nut. I just am. Yesterday, my daughter's grammar homework contained two errors. I was cursing McGraw Hill over that. It was on possessive nouns, and there were two errors in agreement. I had to have her fix the errors on the paper. I'm not even sorry.

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  32. Great post! I also am a grammar nut. Dangling participles are a huge annoyance. They are everywhere, even in books by friends of mine. I should be a grammatical editor. ~sigh~ But that would take time away from my own writing, so what can you do?

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  33. I'm just starting to break the "But" rule in my nonfiction articles when I discovered another really good writer I work with doing it. Congrats on your Writer's Digest article.

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  34. Oh I do both.

    Winston Churchill had a great quote for putting prepositional phrases at the end:

    "Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put."

    It's really a ridiculous rule. And I love using ands and buts to start sentences. ;-)

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  35. I'm happy to know it's okay to start a sentence with "but" or "and." I don't do it often, but sometimes it just sounds right. I enjoyed reading your Writer's Digest article. Your article in the latest SCBI magazine about cursive writing was great too. I must remember not to sign books in cursive.

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  36. Hi Stephanie, happy new year to you. What a great way to begin. Writing rules have really stuck with me especially the one you've highlighted here. Since i began my blog though, I've written in a more casual way which means starting my sentences with whatever word I want :P I still struggle some with passive vs. active voice but improving to be sure. Nice to visit you and congrats on your article in the Writer's Digest!

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  37. Following these rules to a tee takes all the fun out of writing. I must break every one of them! I write my stories using old world phrases, language and terms that many people have never heard before. I suppose the rules were different back in the old days. Maybe I'm following the OLD RULES? I see someone mentioned in a comment that you should not sign your books in cursive? I would very much like to read that article. When I sign a book to a child, I use printing. When I sign a book to an adult I love using cursive because it keeps that form of writing alive. I would hate to see cursive writing go the way of Spencerian Penmanship.

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    1. Jeri--it was an article I wrote that is available in the winter issue of SCBWI's bulletin. If you're a member, look for it! And yes, there are a lot of children who can't read cursive because they aren't being taught to do so.

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  38. Hey Steph, When you write magazine articles who is responsible for the meme and pictures? You or the magazine?

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    1. The magazine. I've written for online publications that require I provide the photo, but I only do that if they pay the fee to use the photo or pay me extra for the time it takes to track down a free photo for them to use.

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  39. I can't stand writing rules! Out with them! :)

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  40. First, congrats on the WD article! I'm looking forward to reading it. Second, so much of my day job writing is formal and I do follow most of those rules. Even though I have been told that it is now permissible to end a sentence with a preposition, I don't believe it. As fiction writers, it's important to be aware of the rules and consider whether those applications make our writing better.

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  41. I've been fortunate in that when I started writing, I didn't know any of these "wonderful" rules. But, I applied the common sense that I'd learned in the business world and applied it to my fiction writing.

    Father Nature's Corner

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  42. I generally prefer the active voice but there is often more poetry in passive constructions. it depends on the nature of the story, whether it's meant to be high action or not perhaps.

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  43. I feel like everything I write breaks so many "rules" that were drilled into my head in school... Congratulations on the article!

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  44. If you have to begin your sentence with "no offense", I guarantee what you are about to say is going to be offensive! Thanks for reminding I also need to renew my subscription to Writers Digest.

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  45. This is such a great post. I particularly love the point you made about rules changing... they really do! I use the AP stylebook personally. This was a great read, thank you for the post. =-) Happy New Year!

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  46. And everything in moderation ;-) Enjoyed your take on the writing rules.

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  47. I am in an old-school writing class now and try very hard to avoid "to be" so this WAS helpful to me. Bless you.

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