Academic Writing Rules To Leave Behind When Writing Fiction

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I’m going to suppose that pretty much all of us learned how to write first and foremost through our chooling as children and young adults. The thing about the writing we learn in schools (and I’m talking from a US schooling experience; maybe yours elsewhere is different), is that it is focused on “proper” writing. We learn about grammar. We learn to diagram sentences. (A skill that I have never used anywhere but middle school.) We learn to write topic sentences and thesis statements, format a citation, and write paragraphs according to a structure. We learn, at length, about academic writing.

The occasional creative writing venture may get mixed into English and Literature classes, but you are lucky if your school even offers a creative writing course. That being said, many burgeoning creative writers step into the world of writing short stories, novels, and other works with all their writing background knowledge based on their schooling. Turns out that a lot of those writing rules that were drilled into our heads and our GPAs were based on don’t transfer to creative writing where we get to be, well, creative.

Not starting sentences with conjunctions

A common writing rule that is drilled into our heads as youngins is to never start a sentence with a conjunction. That is words such as “and,” “but,” or “or.” There are more of them, but these three are the holy trinity of the most common.

Did you know that it is, in fact, not inherently grammatically incorrect to start a sentence with an and/but/or? That this rule is an oversimplification taught to children.

Grammatically correct instances or not starting with a conjunction can be used in creative writing. Because creative. Many of those are instances would be when you are creatively implementing fragments… This leads me to the next point.

Not using fragments and run-ons

Fragments are incomplete sentences. Incomplete sentences, as per the rules of the English language, are those that don’t have both a subject and a verb. (Although to get complicated, the subject of a sentence can be implied sometimes.) In the rules of formal writing, fragments are no-nos.

However, in the world of creative writing, fragments are generally given a big thumbs up whether taking place in fiction or poetry. They can be used for emphasis. Or for dramatic effect. Honestly, a whole variety of reasons.

Run-ons are sentences that run on, that should be more than one sentence, but instead are just a bunch of phrases — despite grammar — all tacked onto each other into it is a dizzy and disarraying jumble of words… sort of like this.

Run-on sentences can be a little trickier to implement as you do not want to disorient the reader. However, certain types of stories call for run-on sentences as a creative choice, such as stream-of-consciousness style fiction. Furthermore, run-ons can be a way to demonstrate a character’s disorientation or panic in the text.

Both of these types of “wrong” sentences can be used in dialogue. People do not speak in complete sentences all the time. Or even most of the time. (See this use of a fragment for dramatic effect?) As people are often speaking on the fly, they do not formulate sentences like we do when we are writing formally. For the most part, we all understand each other even when we speak in either run-ons and fragments. There is a much larger context at work there.

Using topic sentences

When you were first being taught to write paragraphs or simple 5-paragraph essays, you may have been taught to use topic sentences. The topic sentence is the first sentence of a paragraph that states its main point; The rest of the paragraph is the information to support the main point, ended with the conclusion. This serves its place… when teaching the basics of writing structure, but it is not all that implementable in fiction. (Never mind poetry.) However, we as students do not get the same fiction-writing education as we get academic-writing education, so we can’t blame ourselves for transferring these rules between the writing types.

So what does topic sentence writing look like in fiction? Something like this:

Andrew was pissed off. Heat swelled up in him from the inside out. He swung and punched the wall.

Here “Andrew was pissed off” is our topic sentence, stating the facts. The following two are supporting sentences, backing up that point. But in creative writing, you can cut that topic sentence in favor of just using the supporting sentences: explaining the character’s bodily reactions or showing the character acting out on their emotions.

You may also note that the topic sentence “Andrew was pissed off” is very much a “telling” sentence (in the vein of the classic creative writing rule “show, don’t tell”). The two supporting sentences are “showing” his anger.

Cut your topic sentences in writing. (In most cases. There are always exceptions to every writing rule.) Just show the read the supporting sentences. After all, can’t you tell that Andrew is pissed off from just this:

Heat swelled up in Andrew from the inside out. He swung and punched the wall.

Wrapping it up

Don’t get too mad at your English teachers. Everything they caught and reinforced in you about grammar and structured writing had its place. In academic and professional writing for sure. And also as a baseline for creative writing future. As Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” You need to know the rules so you can break them well, in ways that have an impact on the readers while still being clear. But break them you very much can.

Happy writing!

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