Thursday, 31 July 2014

Breaking the writing rules

Who wouldn't want a doorway that looked like this?
Last night I had a quaint dream. Don't stop reading - I know the rule is to never tell other people about your dreams because it's so BORING, but the whole point of this post is about when it makes sense to break the rules.

In the dream I was helping out a company whose sole product was doorways designed in the style of the old Foyles building in Charing Cross Road (don't ask). They were worried about their advertising, which consisted of half page magazine adverts that were totally full of text apart from a backdrop of a Caribbean beach.

Now, one rule of advertising is Don't use too many words. People switch off. Get your message across with images and a few snappy words. (You can have small, secondary text to give follow-on information, but the main message should be short and big.) If you look at adverts on Tube stations these days, for instance, that's generally the case. But when I regularly caught the Tube when I worked at Hatton Cross, one company thought differently.

The adverts were for a Russian restaurant, and they reasoned that people waiting for a tube have nothing else to do but read the adverts - so why not give them something more significant to read? So their adverts had loads of text. And it caused a storm. People loved it. (And briefly other advertisers did the same, though they seem to have forgotten how effective it was now.) Rules in writing are all very well, but sometimes the best result is had from breaking them. Every great writer does this. It doesn't mean you  can write well without knowing what the rules are - but if you know what you are doing, you can consciously break those rules to superb effect.

We had a good example of this at the popular science book writing masterclass a couple of weeks ago. At the end of the event, a panel, including me, were giving feedback on book ideas. What we said several times was that the idea being presented to us was really just a collection of information. To make a good popular science book it needed an arc - an overarching development of a theme across the book. And then someone came up with an idea where each chapter in her book was effectively a separate story with no real connection, apart from the device that was used to link them together. The person with the idea was hesitant, because there was no arc - this was a separate set of individual stories. And the answer was - it's fine to break the rules. (I think I actually said 'There are no rules,' which isn't true, but I meant there are no unbreakable rules.) Here it worked because of the special nature of that linking device.

So the advice to writers (and I think this applies to both non-fiction and fiction) is simple. Learn the rules. Be aware how they apply to your book. Use them conscientiously. And then be prepared to ignore them if it works better that way.

Image "Soho foyles bookshop 1". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

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