Lit Life | Make or Break Grammar and Style
Written by
Lori A. May
April 2016
Written by
Lori A. May
April 2016

Early on in my writing life, a teacher or mentor (I can’t recall exactly) told me this: Learn the rules so you can break them effectively. I follow this advice and extend it to my own writing students. Why? Every writer should consider the why and how of personal style choices. It’s perfectly fine to break grammar rules—your style sets you apart—but it’s equally important to know the basics before detouring from them.

There are some stellar pieces of writing out there that show how breaking the rules of grammar can lead to more interesting and personable writing. You may see writers punctuate in unusual form or refuse to use quotation marks for dialogue, favoring dashes instead. I like to break the so-called rules and start sentences with And, But, and other conjunctions, though sparingly, of course.

Grammar and style usage is an incredible part of the writing toolbox. You can do whatever you want, when you want, with these tools to make your writing truly yours. That being said, the trick is figuring out when and how to use unique twists, and when to break rules for an effective punch.

Consider it like seasoning where a healthy dash of sriracha or garlic can add oomph to a meal. Now, if you add garlic to every item on your plate, at every meal every day, all of your food smells and tastes of garlic. Other people smell that garlic. They know you will smell like garlic before you even walk in the room. Here’s the thing: garlic is lovely. Yet there are so many other spices out there that go unnoticed because garlic takes on this starring role and obscures its intention of highlighting the main ingredients.

Your grammar and punctuation choices should not be the star in your ms, nor should they even be terribly noticeable. The content should be noticed first, while the style in which it is written is a vehicle for delivering that content.

Style directs content. Whether simple or complex, how a sentence is constructed influences how the story is received by the reader. Fragments have a role, too, as do sentences that begin with conjunctions, but these are garlic sentences. When used judiciously and with clear intent, these stylizations can add oomph to the writing. When overused, it’s like having garlic on everything you eat.

For further reading, I’d like to share a few resources I have found useful on this subject:

In my own writing practice, I draft my material and then when the time comes to re-read for editing and revision notes, I pay attention to how many times I use conjunctions to start sentences, how often I divert with unexpected punctuation, etc. When you reread your material, particularly if you read your work out loud, you’ll notice the frequency of these elements and then you can decide how much spice to include, when to pull back.

Writing definitely becomes more interesting when it has a style unique to the writer. It’s up to you to use the tools of grammar and style to craft your own style and voice in a way that complements the content and lets the story be the star of the show.

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