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Words to the Wise

Defying the Rules

If you read a lot, as I do, you will come across books that seem to break the rules, books in which the authors defy the conventions of style and structure, even of punctuation and grammar. You may wonder how some writers get away so successfully with violating the accepted hallmarks of good writing. The novel Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald is written in almost a single breath: there are no chapter breaks, only a couple of section breaks, and sentences that go on and on, one for eight pages. Though perhaps not a story for everyone, it is magnificently crafted: a close look at any one of those sentences reveals that all are flawless—every one of them works.

And that is the key. The best writers—the ones whose names and books endure—can get away with just about anything, because in the end, under the finest scrutiny, what they have done works—and they have made absolutely sure of it. Like Francine Prose, author of Reading Like a Writer, they have "discovered that writing, like reading, [is] done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It [requires] ... putting every word on trial for its life."

There are, of course, successful authors who flout the rules badly and get away with it spectacularly. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown has been variously described by reviewers as a "considerable achievement" and "a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name." It is worth examining for what it does well and for what renders it, in the words of another reviewer, "unmitigated junk."

The lesson here is that to defy the rules successfully, you must first understand them; and to understand them, you must practise them. As Prose says, "We learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire."

Reference:

Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.

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