Learn the Fundamentals of Writing First—Experiment Later

By Bryan Garner for the ABA Journal,

It’s often said that you must know the rules before you break them. But why is that, exactly? It’s a question worth pondering.

I recently flew coast to coast sitting beside a young filmmaker with an MFA from New York University. He’s a finalist this year at the Cannes Film Festival. I asked him whether he’s ever met someone who wanted to do something with the camera that nobody had ever thought of doing before—something boldly original.

“I think you’re describing me before I got serious!” he said.

“That’s funny,” I said. “What would you think if you handed a violin to someone who said, ‘I am going to do something with this instrument that nobody has done before.’ Or what if you handed a set of golf clubs to someone who said, ‘I am going to play the game with these clubs in a way never before imagined!’”

“It would be foolish,” he said.

Naturally, I agreed.

Mastery of any discipline begins with imitation. You must know what’s been done before, and you must know about technique. You must know the rules of the discipline so that you can produce consistently strong results. Otherwise, you’re just acting in ignorance, and the quality of your results will be wildly variable—and generally poor.

So great pianists play in very much the same way, and their individual virtuosity comes through only in subtle ways. Professional golfers may look very different from one another, but they’re very much alike in the fundamentals—especially how the clubface, shoulders, feet and body look at the moment of impact with the ball. If there’s variation among true experts, it’s at the fringes. And all true experts have begun by imitating their great predecessors.

SENSIBLE RULES FOR WRITERS

The same is true of writers. You have to know certain rules. I can think of eight offhand:

  1. You must fervently want to be understood, and therefore you must see things from the readers’ point of view—and it’s best to think of your readers in the broadest possible way.
  2. Sentences need to be linked to one another, fore and aft.
  3. The same is true of paragraphs.
  4. The first paragraph or two are the most valuable real estate you have, so you must make the most of them.
  5. The closing paragraph is the second most valuable real estate, so you mustn’t squander it—but instead cinch the deal (you’re selling your ideas).
  6. Because the primary position of emphasis in an English sentence is the end, you must try to end sentences emphatically if you want to keep your readers from dozing.
  7. Once you’ve written a draft, you must ruthlessly cut every unnecessary word (not being too hard on the word that).
  8. You must be attentive to the fine points of phrasing, word choice and punctuation—not for the sake of pedantry but for the sake of making comprehension effortless for your readers.

Those are good rules.

KICK THESE EDICTS

But many of us, at an impressionable age, picked up lots of bad rules that no reputable authority countenances. Unlike the eight just listed, they’re all simple prohibitions:

  1. You mustn’t begin a sentence with a conjunction, such as AndBut or Nor.
  2. You should never begin a sentence with Because.
  3. You mustn’t write a one-sentence paragraph.
  4. You should never use first person.
  5. You mustn’t end a sentence with a preposition.
  6. You mustn’t split an infinitive (those who believe this often don’t know what an infinitive is).
  7. You should never use since as a softer equivalent to because, and you should never use while to mean although.
  8. You must never use contractions.

Those aren’t really rules. They’re the stylistic equivalent of hearsay upon hearsay. Reputable writing authorities repudiate them, one and all. So part of the problem is to figure out what the real rules are—and then figure out when it makes sense to break them.

Notice that the simple-Simon prohibitions above are probably intended for young children. An analogous rule would be that of the Suzuki method of violin instruction, in which children are taught that before playing, they must begin with a zip-and-step (parting their feet [zip] and then moving the right foot forward [step]). But imagine the reaction you’d get from a virtuoso violinist if you accused them of violating a “rule” by not zipping and stepping at the beginning of a performance. It would be absolute nonsense.

When it comes to supposed rules of writing, it’s good to know what’s at their foundation. Some are aimed at curing young schoolchildren of elementary blunders. We teach kids not to begin with And or But precisely because they tend to begin all their sentences that way (especially And), and they need to be weaned off the habit. We teach them not to begin a sentence with Because just to keep them from perpetrating sentence fragments by mistakenly putting a period rather than a comma after the Because clause.

We teach them not to write one-sentence paragraphs so they’ll learn how to compose well-developed paragraphs. We teach them to write without I and me because beginners easily become addicted to mentioning themselves excessively—and need to learn to write with a more objective tone. All the while, we ignore the fact that they’ll ultimately need some sentence-starting conjunctions, some Because sentences, some one-sentence paragraphs and some uses of first person.

Other “prohibitions” are mostly nonsense and always have been: the idea that you mustn’t end with a preposition or must never split an infinitive. The great H.W. Fowler demolished these false idols in his 1926 A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Nobody has successfully countered him. Most writing authorities, if they mention these bugaboos at all, take pains to eliminate them.

What about contractions? Again, it’s arguably useful to teach children a type of formal prose style before they mature and learn to relax their style (relax, I said, not be lax). It’s good that they learn you are, and later you’re, so they’re not hampered by a fundamental confusion between your and you’re. The same could be said of their and they’re (and there, for that matter). But contractions are an effective antidote to stuffiness, and they aid readability—demonstrably. Consider this sentence from The Law of Judicial Precedent (2016): “To say that a trial court or appellate court generally won’t rethink a prior ruling isn’t to say that it can’t.” An uncontracted style there will strike many as either stilted or downright laughable.

LEARN FIRST, IGNORE AS NEEDED

I should point out that my late co-author Justice Antonin Scalia disagreed with me about contractions. But he broke his own rule and allowed contractions throughout our first joint book, Making Your Case. And on occasion he broke his own rule, even in judicial opinions.

There are Bluebook rules worth breaking. One is the notion that explanatory parentheticals are “recommended” with many citations—a convention that spoils any product with in-line citations. Even proponents of in-line citations, such as Justice Scalia and Judge Richard Posner (no fan of the Bluebook), acknowledge that trailing parentheticals bastardize paragraphs when the citations are interlarded within the writing. Another is the idea that underlining is an acceptable practice in court documents.

Still, I would never say you shouldn’t learn established citation form just because you can later decide to ignore certain elements of it.

When it comes to breaking rules, Paul J. Kiernan of Washington, D.C., cites the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. They know how to play basketball, make passes, dunks and so on, but they’re entertaining because they then break or bend those rules for comic effect. If they couldn’t play a real game, their breaking the rules wouldn’t work. Or consider the comic classical pianist Victor Borge, who followed the same pattern. Or if you appreciate fine couture, think of Alexander McQueen and what he did with clothing design.

Only after you can truly perform as the discipline requires can you break rules to good effect.

 

Bryan A. Garner, the president of LawProse Inc., is the author of many books, including Garner’s Modern English Usage (also available as a mobile app), The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation and The Law of Judicial Precedent co-authored with Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and 11 other appellate judges. Follow on Twitter @bryanagarner. This article was originally published in the ABA Journal.

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