For four years, I taught SAT/ACT essay writing. It was ball-achingly dull. Standardized tests, you see, require a very specific, very rigidly-formatted style, the type of writing you’ve had tattooed on your cortex since sixth grade. The hook. The thesis. Three body paragraphs offering supporting evidence. The conclusion. The arrival of a team of paramedics who attempt to resuscitate you after you shoot yourself in the face to avoid ever again having to write something so boring. I didn’t love teaching it, and the kids didn’t love learning it, in part because it bears so little resemblance to any of the writing you see in the real world.
Think about it: when was the last time you read an op-ed piece that went like this?
Recent scandals within the VA health system have shocked American sensibilities. Eric Shinseki, the United States Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs, should step down. He should do so for the following reasons: he is incompetent at his job, he needs to give someone else a chance to lead, and he has dumb taste in shoes. I will now expand upon these points with concrete supporting evidence.
Or a novel that began like this?
Margaret had grown weary of her quotidian existence. She was weary for the following reasons: her boyfriend had dumped her, she had too many student loans, her IBS was acting up…
Et cetera, et cetera. I understand why we all learn this style growing up. It’s tight, cogent, and easy to understand. It emphasizes the need for concrete supporting evidence (a need that loads of adults and the entire Fox News team have yet to internalize.) It prevents our nation’s middle school students from trying to argue in favor of euthanasia by writing about the time they ramped their BMX bike off a sick jump (that’s a thing middle schoolers do, right?) In short, it’s effective, if desperately, desperately boring. Fortunately, as we grow older, we learn how to bend the rules to make our writing more engaging.
But just how far will the rules bend? Surely some writing rules are sacrosanct–never to be broken under any circumstances? After all, professional writers are always rattling off lists of definitely-dos and absolutely-don’ts. Those lists must mean something.
Well, no. Not really. Your writing needs to make sense and keep the reader interested, but everything else is surprisingly flexible. Here are some of the rules that popular authors have broken, are breaking, and will continue to break for the foreseeable future.