There are many style guides that urge writers to use the active voice and to avoid nominalizations. But many good books I've read often violate these rules.

So when should we break the rules that we find in style guides?

4 Answers 4


After you've thoroughly mastered the rules, and understood them, you can break them any time you want to.

That may sound counter-intuitive, but there's an explanation behind it. Artistic rules are only ever guidelines. They aren't absolutes. But they also aren't arbitrary. Often, they are covering things that it would be difficult to explain. You have to experience them from the inside.

Also, when you know the rules, and how to apply them, you understand the difference in effect and impact between honoring them and breaking them. For instance, there's are times and places to use bad grammar --advertising copywriters and songwriters do it all the time, it's more vivid and memorable. But if you use bad grammar all the time, you just sound uneducated.


Whenever it improves the style of a piece.

Style rules are only guidelines; when it is incorrect usage, it would be a grammatical rule. There is, for style, no way except to play it by ear in end.


I generally agree with Chris: You should break "the rules" to the extent that you understand what they are trying to accomplish and you still believe that breaking them is the most natural way to make yourself understood.

However, there are exceptions to this exception, especially in the field of journalism. If you are writing copy for a newspaper, you should be following their house style reasonably closely. Similarly, if you are yourself publishing a newspaper, magazine, or even a (professional) blog, you should either pick an existing style guide and follow it, or create your own house style and follow it. More generally, if you have been asked to follow a particular style guide for some piece of writing, you should think carefully about why you were asked to follow that guide, and the overall format you will be writing in, before deciding to break any rules.

In contexts where writing is heavy on facts and light on opinion or emotion, it's generally accepted that creativity and expressiveness yield to pragmatism and uniformity. You may still need to break a rule from time to time, if the alternative would be unclear to your readers, but this will be rare. Rules should usually only be broken for reasons of clarity, and not for a more general "I want the reader to think/feel X" purpose.

Editorials and some non-traditional articles will enjoy greater creative freedom. These pieces are advocating for a point of view, or trying to give the reader a novel experience (e.g. what it's like to be a specific person, or to live in a specific place). In that case, deviation from the rules is more acceptable, though it should still be used with care. At the end of the day, your article should "look like it belongs" next to the other articles in the same publication, and if your style is wildly different from everyone else's, it won't. So deviate where it matters, but follow the guide closely where it doesn't.


I wouldn't call style guides "the rules." In fact, as an independent fiction writer, you are not beholden to style guides at all. Don't let yourself feel trapped by them!

A style guide serves a very specific purpose. It allows professional writers who are writing for specific, formal contexts agree on what their collective tone and style will be across their organization or community. So a journalism company will have a style guide that helps make sure the articles it publishes consistently represent the company as professional and trustworthy. And there are several style guides used by academic researchers to make sure that research papers are consistently formatted in a way that makes them both easy enough to understand and precise about the information they present.

But as a fiction writer, you're not writing in a formal context at all! Concerns like appearing highly professional or presenting information in the clearest way possible do not apply to you. Instead, you have different concerns. Your writing should have a musical quality to it. The pacing and sentence structure you use should match the content of your passages - short, aggressive, raw in a fight scene; but slow and relaxed, taking it's time, when your characters have a chance to catch their breath. Figurative language and cryptic hints that obscure the direct meaning of your story are not only welcome, but a strength, inviting your reader to engage with your story at a deeper level.

The result of these different goals is that unconventional grammar is not only fine, but a potentially powerful tool! For example, you can use incomplete sentence fragments in a fight scene to convey how quick and seemingly disjointed the action is in the moment. Or you can use the passive voice to very pointedly avoid saying who is responsible for something when the reader really wants to know who's guilty.

Also keep in mind that the context for a style guide will determine the kinds of rules it lays out. For instance, it makes sense for a newspaper to avoid the passive voice as much as possible. A newspaper article aims to make the most important information very easy to digest, but the passive voice usually obscures the subject, making it more difficult to understand what's being said at a glance. But in most other contexts, I usually see writers say that using the passive voice is perfectly fine and that it is unfairly demonized.

There are a couple of caveats with this. First, there are some contexts where fiction writers are still bound to style guides. In movie screenwriting, there is a very precise style used by all scriptwriters. It has been selected because it helps directors and producers most quickly get the information they need during planning and filming. If you're submitting to a literary journal, there's a good chance that it has a style guide it expects you to use. If you don't, your story won't get accepted.

And as a fiction writer, your attitude of course should be that you use correct grammar as the default, and that you only use incorrect grammar rarely and deliberately as a tool to make some of the most interesting moments of your story stand out. To this end, reading style guides to get an idea of what is usually considered good grammar is worth your time. Just remember that they're written for a different context than you're in, and if a rule doesn't make sense for your goals, you're absolutely free to ignore it.

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