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Rules are made to be broken

Once upon a time, long, long ago, I packed my bags and went traipsing down I-35 to Baylor University. I was a bright-eyed freshman, looking forward to living away from home for the first time. The college of my choice had accepted me and the future awaited. I couldn’t wait.

I was lucky, although I didn’t know it at the time. My parents held expectations, reasonable ones, on me growing up. They expected me to work during the summers, whether it was babysitting or at the local theme park or the local burger joint. I had to keep my grades up. I didn’t have a curfew but they expected me to tell them what time I’d be home (and who I was going with and where we were going) and I was to call if I was going to be late. If I ever felt unsafe somewhere or if I’d drunk too much, all I had to call. I wouldn’t get in trouble. Implied was that we would have a serious talk about my choices the next day.

In other words, I was prepared, or at least as prepared as possible, for college.

Or so we all thought.

What I wasn’t prepared for was freshman English.

Don’t get me wrong. I knew the rules of grammar. I knew how to write a kick-ass research paper, complete with primary and second sources. I knew how to write fiction. With the exception of one semester under the teacher from hell, I’d never made less than a B in English throughout public school. When it came to writing, I made As.

But I wasn’t prepared to sit in a class where the only goal was to beat creativity out of us in favor of following the rules.

There I was, a bright eyed, excited 17-year-old, sitting in my first English class of the semester. Our teacher was a small, unassuming woman. At least that’s the way she appeared. Then she walked up and down each aisle, slapping a single piece of paper on each occupied desk. That should have been our first warning. A silence fell over the class as we scanned the page, one in which the only sounds were the ticking of the wall clock and the click-click-click of the instructor’s heels as she moved around the room, handing us what might as well have been an execution order of creativity.

  • Three misspelled words, you flunk the paper.
  • Two comma faults, you flunk the paper.
  • Two dangling modifiers, you flunk the paper.
  • Two split infinitives, you flunk the paper.
  • Any combination of the more than twenty ways to flunk the paper and you flunk the paper.
  • Failure to have a C average on the last three papers and you flunk the class.

Think about that. Here was a class filled with students, many of them like me who had not only come from high schools that put great value on giving their students a top-notch English education but who had scored in the top 1% on the college entrance exams. Add to that every week saw at least one, if not two or three papers being required in the class.

And this was English 101.

My first paper came back looking like the instructor had slit her wrist and bled all over it. I flunked. I’d never before come close to flunking an English paper and I didn’t understand. We’d been asked to write a 500 page story with dialog. Easy-peasy. Or so I thought.

Wrong.

You see, my characters didn’t speak in complete sentences. They used slang and split infinitives. In short, they spoke the way we speak in real life. But that wouldn’t work in this class. Every word had to be written with the rules in mind. Context didn’t matter.

I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. Nor could most of the rest of the class. The only ones who seemed able to conform were those the rest of us realized weren’t creatives. These were the ones who would become professors. They parroted the lessons back to the instructors without any interpretation. Hell, let’s be honest, they did it without any feeling. They were the Stepford Students.

They were, in short, exactly what the instructor and, by extension, the English Department wanted–good little group thinkers.

I hung in there. I refused to give up. I knew I was a good writer. I came from a family of writers, going back generations. We were also good communicators. So what was wrong? Why was I having such a hard time?

Why were any of us having such a hard time?

It took me a long time to figure it out. Mind you, the instructor gave us part of the answer toward the end of the semester. The rules were put in place to kill creativity and mold us into literary writers. Okay, she didn’t quite put it that way but close enough. She did tell us they wanted to mold us into literary writers. She also told us the rules regarding genre fiction didn’t apply and they were doing all they could to force us into a new mindset.

Since I knew I was transferring to another university because I needed to be closer to home to help with my Dad who had been seriously ill that semester, I let it go. Hell, I even said a thank you when the ability to follow those rules snagged me a job the following Fall semester at UTA as an unofficial TA in the English Department. I couldn’t have the official title because I was a lowly sophomore, but I did the same job the “real” TAs did.

That’s when I started looking at how different teachers approached the subject. The exceptional professors taught the rules. But they also taught that rules were sometimes meant to be broken. Those teachers who were too rigid, or who lacked creativity, conducted their classes the way my English 101 class had been conducted. In classes taught by the former, students learned the rules but their creativity was allowed to flourish. They became better writers, both for fiction and non-fiction, because they could allow their creativity to come out. The latter were so focused on making sure they followed the rules, creativity and originality often went out the window. It took a backseat to conforming.

What I didn’t realize for a long time, not until I met Sarah and Dave and started looking at the publishing industry, is that this same mentality has run rampant there as well. Too many editors and traditional publishers want their writers to follow the rules. That often happens at the cost of the story. After all, if you are having to worry about making sure you include non-traditional characters–and at the same time worry about not being accused of appropriating someone’s culture–creativity may suffer. If you have to worry about making sure you check off all the requirements to be sufficiently “woke”, story may take the backseat.

I’ll admit, I want a story that entertains when I’m reading fiction. I don’t want to be hit over the head with the author’s politics or social beliefs. I don’t mind if they weave those into the prose, letting it sneak in as part of the story. In fact, I appreciate the skill an author uses when I find a book like that. I might not agree with the politics, but I love the craft, if that makes sense.

In non-fiction, I expect more formality when it comes to following the rules of grammar, etc. I expect it to be well-researched. I want sources, primary and secondary. I will point, laugh and mock if you want to be taken seriously but only use innuendo and “unnamed sources” to support your points.

What I don’t want, either in fiction or non-fiction, is for a writer to be so focused on following the rules that they lose the creative spark, that something that makes your work different from everything else out there. In fiction, it can be the “voice” of the piece. It is also how your characters speak. A character in today’s world isn’t going to speak in proper Queen’s English every single time they open their mouth. A character set on a distant world in the far-flung future very well may have slightly different sentence structure, slang, etc.

So here’s a note to creative writing instructors. You are teaching more than the rules of writing. You are teaching your students to be creative. Don’t focus so much on rules that you kill the creative. Listen to your own children when they talk about the books they enjoy. Ask them why they enjoyed a particular book. I bet not one of them will say it’s because the writer followed all the rules of grammar. Instead, they’ll talk about the story or a character they liked or could identify with. Remember, most readers don’t read a lot of literary anything. They read non-fiction and genre fiction.

Rules are there for a reason but we shouldn’t be slaves to them–at least not when it comes to writing.

45 Comments
  1. TRX #

    My Dad was in the USAF when I was a kid. Back then, they moved airmen from base to base every two to four years, so I saw a lot of different school systems. Not a big deal, except for “English.”

    Each school system had different textbooks from different publishers, and “the rules” weren’t the same from textbook to textbook. Things that were explicitly allowed in one were forbidden in another. Even spelling wasn’t consistent. I did well in class once I sussed out the differences between textbooks.

    I was in my late 20s when I took the SAT. I had two books in print and had sold a bunch of magazine articles. The SAT said my English was at about a third grade level, and I needed serious remedial classwork before I could aspire even to English 101.

    Riiiiight.

    I never lived anywhere, where people wouldn’t have laughed at you if you spoke like an English textbook. Their little academia-publisher-educator loop had no basis in reality.

    And if Dan Quayle happens to be reading this, in south Florida in the 1960s; I had a spelling test word marked as “incorrect” when I failed to put the ‘e’ on the end of ‘potato’…

    April 2, 2019
    • Yeah, I never really understood the hoopla over the Quayle spelling “gaff”. I was reading plenty of books that had the “e” on the end of potato and tomato. Much like I never really understood the derision over how W pronounced “nuclear”, it sounds like how most everyone around me says it. But then, the national media agrees with HRC that those of us out in flyover country should be dismissed as “deplorables”, even though they’d be starving and walking their way to work without us.

      April 2, 2019
      • BobtheRegisterredFool #

        I say it the way Bush did, and even I have a better understanding of the physics involved than those English majors who know the correct pronunciation, and have never really studied a STEM text.

        April 2, 2019
      • Synova #

        My understanding is that Bush said it the way that most old school nuclear physicists said the word.

        April 2, 2019
      • thephantom182 #

        I recall watching Laura Bush say in a speech “I know how to pronounce the word “nuclear”” and getting a huge laugh.

        April 2, 2019
    • Quayle was REPUBLICAN…and Dems were jerks about that.

      April 2, 2019
      • More to the point, Quayle made the logical assumption that the people who wrote the card – you know, the people in charge of the national spelling bee – wouldn’t misspell a word used in the competition. Anyone put in Quayle’s place would have done the same thing he did and corrected the kid. Kudos to the kid for knowing his spelling and disagreeing, but the fault was with the event organizers rather than Quayle.

        April 3, 2019
  2. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

    Then, there’s “Engfish”.

    https://www.thoughtco.com/engfish-antiwriting-term-1690596

    April 2, 2019
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      Their alternative ‘truthtelling voice’ sounds like something that is as much empty academic ritual formula.

      April 2, 2019
  3. Makes me glad I never had a college level English class.

    April 2, 2019
    • Hunting Guy #

      Amen.

      April 2, 2019
    • Luke #

      Be grateful.
      My story of bombing out was because of an assigned opinion paper on gay marriage. In 1991. The professor came out of the closet a week later.
      I’d maxed points on the first two papers, but never even got close to a passing grade thereafter. I did however, receive individualized critiques in front of the entire class.
      2nd worst teacher of my life.

      April 2, 2019
      • Synova #

        Assigned? omg.

        My first Eng 101 teacher gave us a list of subjects that we were prohibited from writing about which included all the Hot Topics that she was tired of reading about over and over.

        April 2, 2019
    • Loyd Jenkins #

      When I took my ACT in high school, I scored high enough to be put in Honors English. One essay a week, open topic. Read selected books and discuss in class. Second semester, a look at The American Hero in Literature. Lots of fun discussions and an expectation of being clear in your paper. I managed never to have to deal with the “rules.” I was lucky and blessed.

      April 2, 2019
  4. Your English 101 class sounds much like my Creative Writing class. I dropped that class after a week because I didn’t want to put up with the BS. I like structure. But Good Lord, there is a difference between structure and stifling conformity.

    April 2, 2019
  5. Margaret Ball #

    (Says a prayer of gratitude for the day I talked the Dean into letting me substitute Anglo-Saxon for English 101)

    I’m not sure you can teach people to be creative. But you can for darn sure teach them NOT to be creative, and my high school English classes were enough evidence of that.

    (Says another prayer of gratitude for the school I attended in grades 5-6, where every Thursday was Essay Afternoon and the teachers actually liked it when I handed in short stories on the assigned theme instead of laborious essays. I have indeed been fortunate.)

    April 2, 2019
    • TonyT #

      Yup, creativity requires a nuturing environment….it’s hard to get a Tiger Mom to understand that filling your kids’ days with structured activities DOES NOT lead to creativity and inquisitiveness.

      April 2, 2019
    • GAH … that professor sounds exactly like the middle-school teacher of English that I suffered through. Mrs. Saner. She was so batsh*t crazy that a couple of years later she did actually melt down in front of a class of terrified 8th graders. She was, naturally, known as Mrs. In-Saner.
      Good old fashioned wielder of the red pen when it came to grammar, punctuation and spelling … but she would – at the drop of a hat and for no reason – suddenly launch into spittle-flecked tirades.
      She even had the bad kids spooked, so maybe there was a method…

      April 2, 2019
      • snelson134 #

        Sounds like she forgot General Patton, who when admonished by his Aide-de-camp that one of his tirades might be taken seriously rather than rhetorically, said “It isn’t important for my troops to know. It’s only important that I know,”

        April 3, 2019
  6. Synova #

    My first time through… I don’t remember how much “rules” played into English 101. We didn’t do creative writing though. The class focused on non-fiction writing in support of the Engineering school on campus.

    My second time through I didn’t have to retake Eng 101 but I did minor in English – Professional Writing (something they’ve since ceased to offer) which included grammar classes. In fact, no other English major or minor required those grammar classes. The Education majors didn’t require grammar classes (though a very small number of Education majors decided on their own to take them).

    I took a graduate level, 400/500, class in “English Grammars” that was a class based on study of rhetoric which I dropped for a number of reasons, not all of them related to the “last straw”. One was being asked to give peer feedback on a paper and getting to the end of the paper to find the statement, “What I tell my English students….” at which point I realized that I was reviewing the paper of a graduate student who taught English 101… and the fellow couldn’t write to save his life.

    It was probably good to stop being quite so uptight about the “rules” but I’m conflicted.

    (I did answer end of term review questions in my English classes about “ethics”… since ethics was more important than technical skill according to the class metrics, apparently… with write ups of all the ways that I felt that the classes required students to behave unethically via the required assignments… so I did get some of my own back, maybe.)

    April 2, 2019
  7. Uncle Lar #

    Ån english teacher sometime around junior high gave me a dislike for Shakespeare that haunted me for many a year. We spend weeks in class debating to death the concept that “too too solid flesh” meant that all Hamlet’s problems stemmed from a weight problem.
    Three guesses as to the topic of the teacher’s masters thesis.
    Much later I realized that Willie the Shake was the soap opera equivalent of his day, writing for the folks who flocked to his plays to watch from the penny seats.
    I do purely hate teachers of all disciplines who allow their personal grievances to taint the job they are paid for, to educate the young. The sad truth that such is rampant in our American education system, liberal progressive socialism in particular, has much to do with why our children are so badly informed about so many things.

    April 2, 2019
  8. Rusty #

    When I was a student, my college went to a “writing across the curriculum” theory, where you had to write “proper” papers in other classes, not just in English. So, my computer science professor had us write papers about various computer topics. He wanted us to write in third-person, but WITHOUT using “he, she, or it”! Really? WTF???? So, one paper I wrote was about Bill Gates. I started off with something like “Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, is purportedly the richest man in the world.” So then, logically, I should have been able to continue with “He is also…” since it should have been obvious that “he” referred to “Bill Gates” since nobody else had been mentioned. But no, I couldn’t use the word “he.” So, I used the word “Gates” everywhere on the page where I would/should have used “he.” I think I used “Gates more than 40 times on that single page!

    The scariest part was that my instructor loved that writing! Heck, I was writing it as an (what I thought) obvious way of protesting against not being able to use simple pronouns like he, she, or it. I even complained to him in person, telling him that using he, she, or it IS writing in the third-person! But he didn’t seem to grasp the English part of the class, although he knew his computer programming.

    April 2, 2019
    • Some of the idiots interpreted “no adverbs” to mean no pronouns too. One of my sons put up with that crud.

      April 3, 2019
  9. Rusty #

    Another time in college, in an English class, I wrote a paper that my instructor absolutely loved. She didn’t want to see any papers on things like abortion, capital punishment, gun-control, etc, as those topics had been done too much, and there really weren’t any new arguments to be found on either side. So, I wrote a paper about how it’s not easy being a couch potato. She had never seen that topic before.

    I wrote that everyone thinks it’s easy to be a couch potato and just lay on your couch all evening and watch TV. But no–there is preparation work to be performed beforehand. For example, before you leave for work or school in the morning, you must check your kitchen and pantry to ensure you have enough of your favorite snacks and beverages, else you must stop at a store on the way home to replenish your supplies. You also had to search for the “clicker” (I explained that the clicker was the TV remote control, as they weren’t that common back then) at least 15 minutes before your favorite show started. I then mentioned that you would use the clicker to scan through the channels during the commercials of your favorite show, just on the off chance that there was a better program on some other channel.

    But shouldn’t you use the commercials to use the restroom? No! Serious couch potatoes have learned to control their bodily functions such that they don’t have to use the facilities between the hours of 7 and 11 pm! I also mentioned that you could either disconnect the phone or silence its ringer so there wouldn’t be any distractions from phone calls. I also mentioned that you could even ignore anyone knocking at your front door, unless it sounded urgent, and then you might want to answer the door because maybe a neighbor was trying to let you know that your house was on fire except you didn’t yet know it!

    So, at least that instructor loved creative writing. And heck, that one paper raised my grade in that class from a C to a B.

    April 2, 2019
  10. thephantom182 #

    “Then she walked up and down each aisle, slapping a single piece of paper on each occupied desk.”

    Ah yes, school dayz. The joy, the excitement. My one English class was in NY, given by a worn-down time server who did not even pretend to care, or even give lectures. I got a 90 by virtue of turning in all the assigned work on time, printed on my ancient Qume Scripten laser. He was so happy, he didn’t care what was in them.

    However I do remember one Psych 101 prof who spent the entire first lecture detailing exactly what notebook we would buy for his class, and what pencil we would be using for the exam. He marked lecture notes and so forth, the type of thing one usually finds in Grade 6. I can’t recall if I managed to last the whole hour. That prof was well known to the registrar staff, transfer to another class was not questioned.

    Students who did not transfer the first day reported that he went on in a similar vein for the first week. What colour the headings would be underlined with was covered as was the coloured pencil manufacturer.

    April 2, 2019
    • Loyd Jenkins #

      I would have died. Actually, I would have ended up flunking with an Incomplete.

      April 2, 2019
      • thephantom182 #

        I was an adult at the time, so the office ladies didn’t question me at all. Just found me another class. There were a couple of other classes led by utter incompetents that I transferred out of as well, but that was the only full-blown OCD control freak I saw.

        OTOH, the best physics teacher I ever had was at that school, and the statistics guy was a laugh.

        April 2, 2019
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      I would have failed sixth grade if I had been expected to take lecture notes, much less graded on them. Which may explain some of my later issues with school work.

      April 2, 2019
      • thephantom182 #

        I saw it a couple times in junior high, grade 7-8 in our town. I did fail. Telling the Young Phantom “a Number Two red Laurentian will be used to underline the title of the lecture on the Title Page or you get a zero” guaranteed a zero. Red hair, Scottish, bad attitude, Odd, I had the whole package. Turbo-nitrous version.

        Obviously I used a pen to draw a dragster during the lecture. A blue one.

        I used to get “has potential but does not apply himself” on report cards.

        April 2, 2019
    • Roger Ritter #

      My class like this was a Drama class in college. The school required that all students take a humanities survey course (Drama as related to Art and Music, Art as related to Drama and Music, or Music as related — you get it, I’m sure). Majors or minors in one of those subjects couldn’t take the course from that subject, so my Art major friend had to take the Drama or Music course. I also had a friend with a Music minor, and I was a Computer Science major/Math minor, so the three of us decided to take the Drama course together.

      In the first class, the professor assigned us seats in alphabetical order, with an empty seat between each student. After he went through his entire roster, one of my friends was still standing since he had late-registered and wasn’t yet on the class roster. Better yet, his last name started with ‘L’. The instructor spend an obviously aghast moment considering shifting half the class down two seats and re-labeling his seating chart. Then he gave up and told my friend to take the seat at the end of the last row.

      Then, it turned out, he had a different personality for actually teaching than he did for class admin work. He had seated us and called the roll using a fairly strong, normal voice but as soon as he actually started lecturing his voice changed to something you’d expect to find in a bad show about flagrantly effeminate homosexuals. Since the course was required and my friends were limited in their choice of alternatives, we all stuck it out to the end, but if it hadn’t been for them I’d have probably dropped it and moved to the Art class.

      April 2, 2019
  11. I clepped out of English 101. I aced freshman lit by doing a paper about the symbolism in King Lear, and how all the animals used to describe the two bad sisters were fertility images with negative connotations. Yes, Sir James Frazier was rolling in his grave, as were a couple other people. It was soooooo off-beat that she loved it.

    April 2, 2019
    • Mary #

      They let us test out of Freshman Composition, as they put it, but once we had to write a paper on a piece of equipment and 30 points was taking it to the Writing Center for advice. (That is, you could only get a C if you didn’t go, and that with an absolutely perfect paper.)

      The guy there was SO glad I had chosen a resistance bridge and not an oscilloscope.

      April 2, 2019
  12. This is where I look innocent and note that if one is sufficiently creative, one can talk the administration into substituting ESL for English 101. They both teach all the rules, right?

    ESL is far more fun, because it becomes a lively debate (with the right teacher) on where English should decline its verbs like this, but instead declines them like that, and how it works around having dropped two of the standard tenses, and then substitutes them back in regionally (you, y’all, youse guys)… and how it’s messed up because it’s not like Latin here, and that’s messed up (so firmly states the Eastern Europeans) because Latin-derived doesn’t follow the Greek rules there, but English does in this case… And then throws in Nordic rules in this other case!

    Although, it is far more difficult than an English native speaker would expect, because when the exercise calls for proper grammar, you have to use proper grammar. Teaches you a ton about proper grammar and word choice, and how to think in full sentences and paragraphs instead of… we used to call it “thinking in bumper stickers”, but these days I hear “thinking in tweets”.

    …on the other hand, picking up other languages, once you understand conjugations and declensions, is far, far easier, along with understanding Middle English and Old English.

    April 2, 2019
  13. The only ones who seemed able to conform were those the rest of us realized weren’t creatives.

    I’m afraid I involuntarily winced at this bit. Most of the people I seem to come across in 2019 who described themselves as capital-C “Creatives” spend 24/7 on Twitter as part of some sort of ill-defined vicious mob and never seem to otherwise actually accomplish very much.

    April 2, 2019
    • thephantom182 #

      Its the capitalization that makes them that way. There are those who create, and then there are those who are Creatives. Making a verb into a noun brings out the Qwazy in some.

      April 2, 2019
      • Synova #

        “Its the capitalization that makes them that way.”

        omg, LOL

        I’ll say that I have a similar reaction to anyone who self-identifies as an Empath. They seem to spend most of their time on Twitter refusing to empathize with anyone with an unapproved point of view.

        April 2, 2019
        • thephantom182 #

          My all-time favorite is “Healer”. There are many failed nurse-assistants who went into massage calling themselves Healers these days.

          April 2, 2019
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      It’s a status marker, and if you have it you don’t need to flaunt it.

      Like intellectual.

      April 2, 2019
      • I was once named as one of fifteen intellectuals in a small city. I was aghast. I am most certainly not an Intellectual. Well read, yes, but not an Intellectual.

        April 2, 2019
  14. Draven #

    makes me glad my college-level English classes were all in a film school.

    April 2, 2019
  15. mrsizer #

    My first several philosophy 101 classes were about how to write an essay. Bored me to tears (OMG! No subject!).

    Are split infinitives still a thing? It’s not as if we’re writing in Latin, in which infinitives cannot be split.

    My big problem with commas is that I insert them where there are spoken pauses, which doesn’t always put them in the correct place.

    I’ve worked with a number of people whose pet-peeves have corrected a bunch of my English problems. its vs it’s, less vs fewer, and the Oxford comma, which rules, by the way. Is there such a thing as the Oxford semicolon?

    When I found Tristram Shandy, I couldn’t believe how old it is; I write email like that – and attempt to use every punctuation mark in every email.

    April 2, 2019
  16. Joe in PNG #

    One thing about the great & true creatives is that they are more than willing to break the rules when needed. Beethoven broke the rule about parallels in music. Kurosawa broke the action axis in film.
    Knowing the rules is important. But knowing when and why and how to break them is also important.

    April 2, 2019
  17. College Eng101 was super-easy for me. I clued in on the first day that the prof was a television junky. So I skewed the themes of all my papers towards how wonderful television is, or worked in references to his favorite television shows.

    Yep… know you audience and what will make them happy and they’ll enjoy reading. Luckily, his enjoyment was enough to get a decent grade (he complained about how boring it was to read paper after paper after paper, with nothing interesting, and such horrid punctuation.)

    As far as punctuation goes, I figured out that one of his HUGE pet peeves was writers abusing semicolons. So, I made sure to understand how HE thought they should be used, and made sure they were there. This added the editing step of looking at every comma and period, and making sure it shouldn’t (or couldn’t) be upgraded to a semicolon.

    April 3, 2019
  18. I took speech class twice in college. The first time, I read the syllabus and listened to the prof on the first day and quickly realized that there was NO WAY I would be able to do well in the class the way it was going to be graded. So I dropped the class and took it again the next semester on the other campus so it would be taught by someone else (the local college is spread out like that).

    The second time it was perfectly fine and I got my A.

    April 3, 2019

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