The power of breaking a rule

On Friday night, I was changing posts from tags to categories in advance of a design update (I clearly know how to rock a Friday night). This quote, from You’ve Got the Power: For Good or Evil on the Subversive Copy Editor blog, was worth a post in September 2012:

I recently spoke to a classroom of new copyeditors, and I took this “knowledge is power” idea one step further. Copyeditors have a choice as to what kind of power they wield. They can wave about the rule book and try to assume the power of saying “No, you can’t” to writers, or they can acquire the power of knowing when to break a rule in order to help writers achieve great writing.

My regular readers know that I like to call that second choice “subversive,” but they also know that it truly isn’t. Choose the second kind of power: it’s a better way of life.

It’s still quite true, and the rest of the post is worth a read as well, here in 2015. The point of knowing the rules isn’t to “take a chunk of writing and… grind it through the style-guide mill,” as Carol Fisher Saller says. The point of knowing the rules — from basic ones like capitalizing the first word of a sentence to arcane ones that rule reference lists — is to make that chunk of writing easier for the reader to understand. If a rule is making something harder to understand, it is eminently possible to throw the rule out. 

(Watch me end that sentence with a preposition. Besides, that’s not even a rule.)

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