Learning and Breaking the Rules

July 17, 2015

Learn the Rules, Break Them!
Pablo Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” 
 
Looking at Picasso’s collection of artwork, one can see that his initial paintings were much different from the later ones. Around the early 1900s, most of his works were portraits. He mimicked real life as he learned how to be a painter. He followed the rules and became a professional. Some of Picasso’s most famous works come from this time period, such as “The Old Guitarist” from 1903.
 
As Picasso transitioned from a painter to an artist, he started breaking some of the rules he had followed. He stopped just mimicking what he saw in life and started creating work that was unique and represented his reflections on what he saw. He developed a style that was truly his own.
 
His most popular works from the 1930s and 1940s include people with distorted features, eyes and noses out of place, and even faces that are two different colors. One example is “Dora Maar au Chat” from 1941. 
 

Breaking the Rules

Though Picasso is perhaps most well-known for his paintings, he was also a writer of both poetry and plays. His statement about learning “rules like a pro” in order to “break them like an artist” holds true for writers as well.
  • There are certain rules writers need to learn:
  • Write in complete sentences.
  • Choose past or present tense, and stick to it.
  • Make sure the subject and verb of a sentence agree.
  • Don’t write run-on sentences.
  • Put punctuation in the right places.
  • Spell all words correctly.
Most professional writers consistently follow all of these rules, plus many more. They learned these rules from English teachers, critique partners, editors, and by reading a lot.
 
However, there are many writers who intentionally break these rules. They start sentences with conjunctions. They end sentences with prepositions. They misuse punctuation or forgo it entirely. These broken rules are part of what makes the artists’ writing styles so unique.
 
For example, e. e. cummings was one of the most innovative poets of the twentieth century. Today he is well-known for the writing rules he broke, particularly the lack of punctuation and capitalization in his poems. 
 
Another author who defies punctuation rules is middle grades and young adult author Jordan Sonnenblick. In his book Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie, Sonnenblick doesn’t use the typical quotation marks for dialogue and italics for emphasis or to indicate thoughts. Instead, he uses italics to show dialogue, and rarely uses “dialogue tags.” He just starts a new paragraph when a new person speaks. The excerpt on the right shows an example of this style. It works well for the book because it reads more like a journal than a story. This style of punctuating dialogue is also adopted by Jacqueline Woodson in her award-winning book Brown Girl Dreaming.
 
The Book Thief
Another rule-breaking novel is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. The book is written in first person, which typically implies that it’s a close telling of the story from the main character’s point of view. However, The Book Thief is not told from Liesel Meminger’s point of view, but from the more omniscient viewpoint of Death. Given Zusak’s style, the book’s content, and its overwhelming success, this was a smart rule to break.
 
Book With No Pictures

A picture book that breaks the rules of writing is The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novack. The first rule Novack breaks is that picture books must have pictures. This seems like a problem, but Novack quickly proves that is not the case. The premise is that everything in a picture book must be read aloud, including when he breaks a rule such as “all words must be real words” by saying things like “blork” and “blurf” and “blaggity-blaggity glibbity-globbity globbity-glibbity.” Much to a child’s delight, the adult reading the book must read these non-words and silly songs and poems out loud, leading to endless laughs. As a comedic actor, humor is a large part of Novack’s style. 

An important note about these authors is that they didn’t make a choice to avoid learning writing rules. They learned them, mastered them, and then made a deliberate choice to break them for the sake of style. The writers developed readers’ confidence in their ability to write well first. Without that confidence, the rule-breaking would seem accidental instead of intentional. Readers want to read pieces of writing with style, not with errors.
 
As author Jay Bondeson states in The Concise Guide to Ruining Your Writing, “Occasionally, writers break rules for specific effect, but the privilege to break rules is earned only after first proving the ability to follow them. Otherwise, breaking a rule is simply a mistake.”
 
Artistic rule-breaking is important. Without it, art would all look the same, and names like Pablo Picasso and e. e. cummings might not be recognizable. Taking a risk by trying something different is what artists do best.
 
As writers or teachers of writing, learn and teach the rules of writing first. Then, in a safe environment with plenty of support and constructive criticism, break those rules. Become artists.
 

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