Knowing the Rules in Order to Break Them by Shannon Austin

posted Nov 15, 2017, 3:53 PM by Writing Center
One of the greatest things about being a creative writer is the ability to challenge language conventions. As a poet, this impulse is even greater.  The grammar rules that we try to enforce so strictly in academic writing are suddenly not as important as the way we choose to manipulate these rules to create certain meanings in our art. Look at Gertrude Stein for an (extreme) example of a writer who, on the surface, does not seem to follow any of the conventions of the English language. 

However, studying Stein more closely, one can see that she actually knows far more about these conventions than one would at first believe. She is able to write the way she does and to structure her lines in unusual ways because she understands the basics, as well as how breaking certain rules will impact the reading of her texts. More importantly, Stein knows why she makes the rhetorical and grammatical choices that she makes.

Students and beginning writers often complain about composition classes because the writing is too dry, too formulaic, and overall too boring. Some want to experiment and express themselves through more creative writing. Some, of course, just want to get through a required course and move on with their lives. Others are annoyed at the fact that grammar is such a big deal and that they are penalized for using the wrong verb tenses or failing to add a comma. If the ideas are good, why does it matter so much that the grammar is poor?

Now, I will be the first to admit that some of these complaints are understandable. Composition classes are meant to reinforce the basics and form a foundation for college writing, so the creative aspect (though professors do try to encourage individual voice) sometimes takes a backseat to academic standards.

However, this foundation, while frustrating at times, is entirely necessary. Learning (or relearning) the basics of forming a sentence is crucial when creating a strong thesis statement and reasonable arguments. Without these building blocks, the ideas in a student’s paper, even if they are good ideas, may not come across in the way that the student had intended. The overall meaning might not come through to the reader.

Knowing these small details and understanding the rules, help students to better convey their intentions. Once these skills are mastered, it is easier to think more creatively in terms of what language can do. This ability to think outside of the box makes for the best kinds of writers. You can play with verb tenses in order to delve into the idea of time. You can invert the order of a sentence, or particular words, to make the reader question convention and look for multiple meanings. Like Stein, you can try to describe an object without ever actually naming the object in question, toying with the idea of labeling and identity.

You cannot break the rules, however, without first knowing the rules.

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