Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Know the Rules before You Break Them

In her manifesto for correct punctuation and grammar, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Lynne Truss said this about comma splices (i.e., independent clauses joined by a comma, creating a run-on sentence):

“… so many highly respected writers observe the splice comma that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you're famous.... Done knowingly by an established writer, the comma splice is effective, poetic, dashing. Done equally knowingly by people who are not published writers, it can look weak or presumptuous. Done ignorantly by ignorant people, it is awful.”

One of the rules we throw at would-be writers is that they mustn't be bound by convention--they shouldn't be afraid to break the rules. The problem with this well-intentioned advice is that it leads many writers to get ahead of themselves by trying to break, “the rules,” before they understand them.

There are countless examples of authors who make the same, “mistake,” and one is lauded while the other condemned. On the surface that seems grossly unfair. The distinction, however, is simply a matter of mastery: if you’ve shown your readers you know what you’re doing, they’ll try to understand your intent in breaking the rules; if you haven’t, they’ll take it as more evidence that you don’t know what you’re doing.

There are many areas of endeavor where you need to show you know the rules before you can be trusted to break them. While nowhere near as critical as a licensed profession like medicine, publishing is structurally similar because in both cases you’re asking people to trust that you can actually provide what you claim to provide.

In the days of the craft guilds an artisan began as an apprentice, graduated to a journeyman when he had mastered basic skills, and became a master—and independent businessman—only after producing a masterpiece to prove he had actually mastered all facets of his craft. We are well past the day when the only way to learn was by doing, and it is neither practical nor necessary to apprentice ourselves to established publishers in order to learn the business, but the prerequisites of skill and mastery still apply if you want to be an artisan publisher.

Fortunately many of the skills you need as an artisan publisher are the same ones you need to live and work in the modern world: you need to know how to use the technical tools of your trade, particularly computers and the Internet; you need to know how to organize your time and work effectively; and you need to master both editorial and marketing communication.

But beyond that, you need to understand the industry in which you will be participating. Artisan publishing is about breaking the rules—at least the ones that held true in commercial publishing for roughly the last 50 years. Both as a matter of personal integrity and in order to lay the foundation for credibility with your readers, you need to understand how the publishing industry worked and how it is changing. Only when you understand the strengths and weaknesses of all the modes of publication now available can you, as Peter admonished the early Christians, “give reason for your faith,” in artisan publishing.

Image: Simon Howden /