Rules of the Open Page


Did you ever notice how many rules–and exceptions to those rules–are involved in written English? I can’t speak for other languages since I haven’t written in them since my tenth grade French class where Je voudrais manger! was often my ending journal note before the final bell. The class, being the last before lunch, would naturally incite me to pen in my scrolly tenth-grade cursive, “I would like to eat!” I was careful to follow the rule that changed the form of the helping verb “would like” to match the singular French pronoun for “I.”

Such fond memories of my  student life and the cheese pretzels I ate every day. I have equally fond memories of another life:

Back in the day when I was a teacher, there were twenty-one rules about commas I went through with my kids. Twenty-one! “Use a comma after a greeting.” “Use a comma to separate items in a series of three or more.” “Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction that links two independent clauses” are just three I remember specifically. This is fascinating stuff, isn’t it? Even though we all know it isn’t, I worked in a terrific academic environment (shout out to all you Kenosha Christian Life peeps!) where there was a surprisingly high number of students who not only learned these rules, but actually applied them.

There aren’t just rules for commas, of course. There are rules for spelling, rules for capitalization,  rules for formatting, rules for just about everything related to writing it seems. It can drive even the most fanatical rule-followers among us batty! And if that isn’t enough, there are exceptions to those rules. The kind of “I before E except after C but when sounding like A as in neighbor and weigh” stuff many of us still repeat silently to ourselves when putting together a sentence.

But what if all these rules–and their accompanying mnemonics–aren’t as helpful as they are intended and purported to be? What if, when we start to write, our neurotic worries about correctness and grammar actually trip us up? What if it’s in the abandonment of rules that we truly find our creativity?  

At the question, you might be wondering whether our teachers and their lessons  been a total sham, asking yourself, “Should we throw out all the rules?” Before we go that far, think of all the places rules have taken us: from getting into (or out of) that school of choice to helping us plan the most basic of things, rules do have their place.

But there are places that rules don’t belong as well.  About a year ago, the Washington Post published an article outlining how the very I before E  rule  I just referenced is a giant lie, stating that in fact, the likelihood of an I following an E is greater than preceding it. While you’re trying to scoop your jaw up off the floor from that one, let me go on to say that, in addition, rules have absolutely no place in drafts or journals (or in the first week of summer vacation, my recently graduated freshman son insists). I’d argue they don’t belong in blog posts, either, but the powers that be–as well you, my dear readers–might disagree. So for now we will stick to drafts and journals. In many ways, they are the same thing anyhow. So that’s why the new rule should be no rules when it comes to these writing processes.  

Here’s why: First of all, rules are constrictive. When we are trying to just get our ideas on the page, sometimes that is as far as we get–a few scribbled lines. Rules hang us up and make us forget all the cool stuff behind that line, all the ideas, all the images, all the sound patterns. We can always add rules back in. They aren’t going to leave and, trust me, they don’t mind being the last thing you think of rather than the first. They’re really not like that. So they don’t need to be there when we’re just getting those infant things down. 

Second, for a lot of us, rules and scolding go hand in hand. Especially when we break them.  Does that little red squiggle underneath your misspelled word distract you? Make you feel a tiny bit bad? It does me! That’s why I’d rather draft on paper, where no-one but a slightly later version of myself can tell me what needs to be changed. Darn computer, half your green grammar squiggles are wrong anyway! Who told you what a subject is? What a verb is?

Finally, you can always go back and change things later. It is, I tell you truly, easier to edit than it is to create. When you let something sit for awhile, it becomes clearer. All the redundancies, mistakes, and irrelevancies stand out hollering, “Cut me!” And you might edit in a way that makes many of those rules unnecessary. The important thing is just going ahead and getting those thoughts and ideas out there and, for now, ignoring the rules.

This might sound funny coming from a former teacher who taught all twenty-one comma rules. And it feels ironic coming from the same place inside–the place of instinct and truth–that just told my son, “The rules on X and Y for summer vacation are the same as they are for the school year.” But the truth is, the best rule is–in drafts and journals, at least– is that there are no rules.


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