The quote “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” attributed to Pablo Picasso, has been recycled by creators across disciplines over time, but none more so than writers. And there’s a reason for that: in literature, rules abound, and just like the English language, there are even more exceptions to those rules. As a writer, when do you need to follow the rules, and when is it better to break them?
This may seem obvious, but before you can break the rules of writing, you’ll need to understand them. How do you learn the rules? It’s not as though there is a comprehensive resource that covers each and every convention of the craft. However, there is a wealth of information in publication on the subject. Just like learning any new skill, you have to put in the hours of research, study, and practice. And one of the best ways to do that is reading.
It’s been a century since it was first published, but Strunk & White’s Elements of Style still holds up as a go-to text on writer’s craft, especially with reference to the virtues of brevity, cohesion, and comprehension. It’s a slim volume, and a dense read, but one of the most influential in the field. For a less academic, more anecdotal approach, check out Stephen King’s On Writing. King famously outlines the rule against the use of adverbs, then summarily states that he uses them excessively in his own bestselling work (ha!).
Rules apply across various aspects of writing from language to length, and genre to audience. Other commonly referenced craft rules include showing vs. telling (a mantra of publishing professionals), the pitfalls of head hopping, purple prose, and passive voice, as well as a general disdain for prologues, among many, many others. My favourite rule of writing comes from Neil Gaiman: Write. You can’t make mistakes if you don’t try, and you can’t learn without making mistakes. Every genre also has its own conventions and tropes at work, and there are even standards in the length of your manuscript for a particular audience. So why then do we see these “no-no’s” so frequently embraced in bestselling and critically acclaimed works? Because those authors have put in the time and effort to understand how and when they can go against conventional wisdom to appeal to their readers.
Ultimately, that is what is at the heart of writing—reaching readers—and inevitably it will mean breaking the rules. In order to be experimental and boundary-pushing, you need only understand the conventions and boundaries in order to ignore or challenge them. Literature as an art only continues to grow and evolve because of the writers who are willing to test those boundaries, explore new approaches, and develop fresh perspectives. A shout-out to all the rule-breakers out there—we need you! (Applause.)