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The Minimalists
The Minimalists are Emmy-nominated Netflix stars and New York Times–bestselling authors Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. Alongside their podcast cohost, T.K. Coleman, this simple-living trio helps millions of people eliminate clutter and live meaningfully with less. Learn More.

Finding Your Writing Voice

Some rules are not meant to be broken. Some are. Many rules are pliable: they can be bent and manipulated and shaped to produce a desired outcome. The beautiful and terrifying job for the writer is he or she must determine which rules to bend, which rules to break, and which rules to adhere to.

Sentence-ending prepositions. Split infinitives. Double negatives. Sentence-beginning conjunctions. Oxford commas. Sentence fragments. Compound conjunctions. One-sentence paragraphs. Run-on sentences. Compound contractions. Passive voice. Sentence adverbs. These are just a few of the many so-called rules I’ve broken—and continue to break—over the years. (Hell, I break nearly all of them in this essay alone.) But the shattered rules lying on my cuttingroom floor have shaped my writing voice more than anything else.

There are two ways to break a rule: knowingly and unknowingly. It’s the latter that gets people into trouble. You see, ignorance of a rule is not an adequate excuse for breaking it. Thus, when we don’t know the rules, we break them haphazardly, without cause, just because we “don’t know no better.” When we do this, we usually look like fools.

Good writers opt to mangle the rules all the time, though. That’s because good writing is fun and enjoyable, communicative and expressive, and it is not meant to be read like a freshman college assignment. (Can you think of a time when you looked forward to reading a “fun” and “enjoyable” freshman paper?)

In my case, as auditory learner, I’m a fairly auditory writer, which means that much of the syntax in my work takes on the brain-voice as you get closer to the consciousness of the author or a particular character because I want to preserve an oralish, tumbling-words, out-loud feel to the work. Hence, you might find omitted commas, run-on sentences, extreme use of polysyndeton, passive construction, progressive tenses, unconventional compound contractions (“wouldn’t’ve,” “I’d’ve,” and “y’all’ren’t”), compound words that aren’t “real” words (“livingroom,” “coffeetable,” “skinnydipping,” “bumpersticker,” and the above-used “cuttingroom”), paragraphs beginning with compound conjunctions (“And but so”), and other intentional grammatical faux-pas in my writing. These stylistic devices are used to advance the narrative in a meaningful, more realistic way. That is, they are used for the reader’s benefit, not mine; they also help sculpt a unique writing voice. Stated in plain English: I basically pretty much write how I talk, and because I know which rules to bend, I can make it work well in prose.

And but so the keyword here is intentional. If you know which rules to break, you can shape your own distinct writing voice and style. If you know what you’re doing, then it’s okay to employ a certain amount of grammatical prestidigitation. This is how a writer forms his or her voice. If you don’t know what you’re doing, though, you’ll likely do what I did for the better part of a decade: stumble over your keyboard each time you attempt to cobble together an arrogant, clever sentence.

Ergo, my challenge to you: learn the rules, and then let’s have fun breaking them together.

You don’t need my help to learn how to be a better writer, but if you’d like my direction, I teach an online writing class: How to Write Better.