More on breaking the rules of writing

Fiction, rather than academic writing, has triggered this post. What follow are two examples of rule-breaking. What interests me are the reasons behind the transgressions because they shine a light of the agency of the writer rather than on the prescriptions of textual norms.

Breaking Rules #1: kid versus school

My 10-year-old, who is in Year 6, has just read ‘The Scarecrow and his Servant’ by Philip Pullman. One evening, upon reading (on page 17)

Pullmanhe initiated this conversation:

Him: Why is it that at school they tell us we always have to use commas when we write lists but writers use ‘and’ a lot? We’re never allowed to use ‘and’ in a list.

Me: Why do you think?

Him: I don’t know!

Me: Which do you prefer?

Him: Well, when I read this (above) it’s like Jack sees more and more food, it’s bigger and better, he’s shocked and he feels loads of emotion, like his emotion is growing. But a boring old list with a load of commas, it’s as if the author is just saying it, just telling it, it’s just a list of words, it’s boring. With ‘and’ it becomes more exciting. But maybe not all the time, you need to know how to use it … (he then re-read it without all the ‘ands’ to see what effect it had)

(This morning, he asked: why does the plot of a story always have to begin and finish in the same place? – says I: Does it? (unhelpful, as ever) – No, he replied, and then left for school, leaving me wondering: why do academic writing conclusions always have to take us back to where we started from?).

Breaking rules #2: author versus reader

In a recent interview with Tim Winton on BBC Radio 4 ( there is a discussion between him and his readers on his ‘Dirt music’, a novel on the lives and intrigues of his characters, set in Australia. Many interesting things are said in this interview, but this is what caught my attention:

Winton has decided to report his characters’ many dialogues without using any quotation marks. He says he:

made a decision to not put quote marks around conversations so that they just live in the prose.

Not only does he not mark the boundaries between dialogue and narrative, but he has also chosen to omit apostrophes where you would normally use them to show that people are talking in slang (eg. every time a character says ‘goin’). Winton says:

there is so much vernacular, too many apostrophes, then you add a few speech marks … it just looked like a morse code … it was untidy

(This made me think of how littered with useless bibliographic information and distracting in-text references academic writing can be).

But Winton goes beyond the stylistic/aesthetic point. He also takes a sociological/political stance as ‘narrator in the text ‘and bends his writing to his will so that his text actually embodies his thinking, it doesn’t just represent it. Deciding to get rid of markers of Australian vernacular – and thus breaking the rules of writing – enabled him to be less

condescending to those who speak like that. My marks are there to show the reader that I am not illiterate

In other words, he decided that in order to express parity, be more of a realist, be a present narrator (or whatever other intentions he may have had), he had to change the prevailing conventions of writing and go against the expecations of his readership.

I confess to not having read Winton’s book so I don’t know what the overall effect of these stylistic choices is(if you have read it, I’d love to hear your reaction), but the fact that he has done it is enough of a prompt for me to reflect on what prompts an academic writer to break the rules of their communites.

Some examples of academic rule-breaking are here.

Another ‘academic’ example I like is John Law’s ‘Making a Mess with Method‘ in which he provides a graphic abstract, rather than the bog-standard CARS, or whatever other template, to draw attention to the fact that sociology is messy, and that its methods simply impose an order, rather than reveal one. In other words, in order for Law to make his epistemological point about messiness, he chose to create a ‘messy’ text, or at least one that doesn’t follow the rules I have to teach in class (!).

Do you have any similar examples?

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