Editing Grammar Writing

Arbitrary Rules

As a writing teacher and freelance editor, I’m expected to abide by and teach the rules of “proper” written communication. Well … which ones?

And, who made those rules anyway?

I imagine a small group of wizened representatives of the patriarchy huddled around a substantial oak table in a dusty library like one you might find in a Dan Brown novel.

Authority #1 says, “Hey, let’s use those two little lines to indicate that someone is speaking,” as he raises his arms to punctuate with air quotes.

Authority #2 is from a different country and he says, “Na, let’s just use one on each end. Then, if that person is quoting someone else, we can use the dual quotes inside.”

That argument went on for a while.

Then they contemplated further. “Should we put the punctuation inside the quote marks or outside?”

Hmm …

Since we’re in Canada, use the Canadian rules, of course. Do you know them? Or, have you become Americanized? Now that our communications encompass the entire globe, shouldn’t we be speaking to the greatest number of readers in their own “style?” We can’t possibly hope to communicate clearly to everyone. To thine own self be true. Just choose one style and stick to it.

BTW, notice that this blog post has paragraphs that are not indented but have spaces between them instead. This is not how we write a book. For some reason, many of my clients don’t seem to know this. It makes me wonder if they’ve ever read a real book. But, this is how things evolve. If enough writers write the “wrong” way, it will soon become the norm. Still, for now, do as I say, not as I do here.

In 1998, Portuguese author José Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novel: Blindness.

“…[it] contains many long, breathless sentences in which commas take the place of periods. The lack of quotation marks around dialogue means that the speakers’ identities (or the fact that dialogue is occurring) may not be immediately apparent to the reader.”

The book is initially difficult to follow but you get swept away by the powerful story. Saramago’s writing style adds to the experience. I won’t give you a synopsis of the story to prove my point—it’s worth a read.

This week I skimmed Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin. I didn’t actually read the whole thing because it just didn’t grab me (more about that later). Shopsin’s loose narrative meanders through her memories in a non-linear fashion and lands here and there on the top of each page. She leaves all her pages at least half blank. Good for her for breaking the rules (making her book twice as long that way) and getting away with it (traditionally published). But, why?

Shopsin’s premise is based on her father’s belief that life is essentially shitty and pointless and you have to devise ways to cope with it by living in the moment. The style reflects the philosophy. Does it?

For this, she got a real publishing deal and real reviews. It doesn’t hurt to have connections in the industry when looking to publishing a memoir in New York, especially if it’s about New York. It also helps to be a good writer.

Aha! … I decided that I didn’t have to adhere to anybody’s friggin’ arbitrary, selectively-agreed-upon rules for how to write my own friggin’ memoir!

I kept hearing, from those literary types I came into contact with, that a memoir should follow the same traditional story structure as fiction. I even teach that. However, I argue that … life’s just not like that.

In my memoir, I’m trying to portray what actually happened, not selectively stick to a “theme,” present a series of choices, each more difficult than the previous, based on conflict, so the story arc rises to a predictable climax where everything is resolved, the character is forever changed, and a lesson learned.


Wouldn’t it be nice if life was a neat little package just like literature? It’s not. It’s messy. It’s no wonder I can’t get my memoir finished. I’m listening to all the wrong people, thinking I have to do it perfectly. I’m not intending to try to impress some publisher; I’m planning to self-publish … which means I can do whatever I damn well please. (Unfortunately, a lot of writers feel that way and that’s why there are so many really bad self-published books.)

The whole point is to communicate clearly. Some readers will get it (and hopefully like it) and some won’t. I tell my students and clients this: “Learn the rules, break them as you see fit, be prepared to justify it, and, above all, be consistent.”

And, I’ll tell you … some parts of my memoir are already excellent and some … are just never going to be perfect—kinda like life, kinda like me.

Leave a Reply