Craft Means Rules

This is probably going to be an unpopular post, because I’m going to tell you something that many of you really don’t want to hear.

Professional writing is a three-edged sword and two of those edges involve rules.  First, there’s the art of writing—which doesn’t really have rules.  Second, there’s the craft of writing—which really, really does.  Finally, there’s the business of writing—which also has rules.

I’m a big fan of the art of writing, so don’t take this the wrong way, but art ain’t art if it’s not crafted.

I wish I could remember the story or the author, but in one of my classes—about short story writing—the instructor used an example in which a sentence was written with the noun out of place relative to contemporary rules of grammar.  The sentence still made sense, which is important.  The meaning was clear, which is essential.  But because the example sentence was the only sentence in the surrounding paragraphs that really bent the rules of grammar the sentence had artistic impact loaded with meaning.

Take away lesson:  Yes, you can bend the rules—you can even break them—BUT you have to do it on purpose, you have to have a purpose for doing it, and you have to follow the rules more often than you break them for it to work—and then it still might not work.  Not all art does.

I read a lot.  Not as much as I’d like, but a lot.  The vast majority of the rule-breaking I see is in amateur writing.  In professional writing, I mostly see occasional rule-bending, but very little rule-breaking.  Mostly what I see in professional writing, however, is a lot of seemingly ordinary words strung together in a lot of seemingly ordinary ways that accumulate into impactful art.

There seems to be this notion among amateurs that breaking the rules is the best way to stand out.  You certainly stand out, but not in a good way.  The rules are tried and true—break them at your own peril.  Rarely, so rarely they burn through time, do writers break the rules in a way that actually works.  Then, what so often happens is that a bunch of amateurs try to follow in their wake—mostly in ways that don’t work in the least.

There’s great hope in being one of those few and I don’t want to rob that from you, but the truth is most of those few wrote a lot of material following the rules before they ever found a story they needed to break them in.  Again, there are exceptions.  But those exceptions often involve one-hit-wonders—timeless, sure, but seriously lacking in longevity.

There are rules to the craft of writing.  You don’t HAVE to follow them.  But you do HAVE to know them.  You HAVE to be able to use them.  Or else all your ruling breaking will amount to is spitting in the wind—and that’s just messy.

About Stephanie Allen Crist

Stephanie created and produces in answer to a call from God to use her experiences and gifts to help others. Stephanie is also the author of and two books that can be found on that site. Stephanie strives to share her love, faith, and talents in an inclusive manner to help others who know spiritual pain and who know the bitter taste of the dregs of despair.
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1 Response to Craft Means Rules

  1. acflory says:

    Sorry Stephanie. I read this post a few days ago but didn’t have time to comment so now I’m playing catchup. This topic of rules covers a lot of ground and I’ve come to realise that a great deal of craft that I learned back in school is no longer taught. Instead there is a great emphasis on creativity. Which would be fine if the students already had the basics under their belts. But they don’t.

    I find it really sad that educators have been putting the cart before the horse for so long. A carpenter must learn to use his/her tools before he can create a beautiful chair and he must know the laws of physics so the chair does not fall down the instant someone tries to sit on it.

    Writers don’t make dangerous bits of furniture but they still need to know the basic principles of their craft before they can safely decide which rules to ignore. Reading widely can help a great deal but still, a writer needs more than a ‘feel’ for the language in order to create something of lasting value.

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