Breaking rules

Karen L. Day and I had a great visit at the Edith Wheeler Memorial Library in Monroe, Connecticut today. We received a warm welcome and had some interesting questions from the audience.

One of my favorites was from a mother: whenever her daughter writes an essay for her teacher, it comes back with lots of notes for corrections. Her daughter always corrects as directed, but when can or should she question those directions?

The answer Karen and I gave was twofold.

First, the teacher is teaching the rules of writing. A writer will break those rules, but on purpose, for a purpose — to create something deliberate with the piece. But before a writer can break those rules s/he has to know them. At school, the teacher’s job is to make sure a student learns the rules — which is what all those corrections are about.

A professional writer also gets corrections and directions from editors. Writers will correct as directed, but they will also build what Karen called “the internal editor.” The job of the internal editor is to have a clear sense of how the writer wants the writing to sound (the “voice” of the story). And sometimes that internal editor will trump the editor’s call.

So if you’re a kid, how do you build this internal editor?

Read, a whole lot, to see what kind of writing you like. Then write, a whole lot, and experiment with breaking those rules. But maybe not at school. ‘Cause you still have to learn the rules.

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