Writing Done Wrong: Breaking the Rules to Grab the Reader’s Attention

Along with a tendency to have strong opinions about the Oxford comma, working as a professional editor means that I tend to find errors in texts even when I’m off duty.[*] However, there are moments when discovering instances of inaccuracy places me in the position of a sleuth. When I’m reading fiction or poetry, I sometimes find what initially looks likes an overlooked error (eg, missing spaces, unusual line breaks, nonstandard spelling) that forms a pattern. And patterns in writing signal intent on the writer’s part.

Writing Done Wrong: Breaking Rules to Grab the Reader’s Attention. Text by Rita E. Gould
This excerpt of Jorie Graham’s poem, “The Errancy”, demonstrates how unconventional line breaks create a halting rhythm when reading the poem.

So, why deliberately add what reads superficially as a mistake? Ignoring writers with idiosyncratic preferences,[†]  violating the conventions of written language—more properly called its orthography[‡]—usually isn’t done to make proofreaders, betas, and grammar pickers twitch. Rather, it represents an artistic approach to drawing the readers’ attention to the text. Considering orthography encompasses spelling, punctuation, emphasis, and so forth, writers can play with written form in numerous ways. While I cannot document all these approaches, I’ll provide several examples where writers ignore conventional usages from the aforementioned categories as well as explain why they did so.

Nonstandard Spelling and Punctuation

Of course, nonstandard spelling and punctuation are the two categories where we’re most likely to assume the author introduced a typo versus deliberately chose incorrect usage. I certainly thought this was the case when I noticed the first instance where quotation marks that usually denote dialogue were absent in The Snow Child. Eowyn Ivey’s novel is based on the Russian folktale, Sneugurochka. In this tale, a childless couple build a child from snow that magically transforms into a real child. Ivey’s novel differs from the source material in that the story points to two possible origins for Faina, one magical and one more mundane. Once I realized that the “error” in Ivey’s novel recurred only when the dialogue involved Faina, I correctly suspected that Ivey eliminated the quotation marks to subtly call our attention to the uncertainty surrounding Faina’s true nature.

Writing Done Wrong: Breaking Rules to Grab the Reader’s Attention. Text by Rita E. Gould
In The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey leaves Faina’s potentially magical origin unresolved, something she signals by omitting quotation marks when the dialogue involves Faina.

However, unconventional orthography isn’t always so subtle as absent punctuation. Perhaps the most recognizable—and potentially controversial—form of unconventional orthography occurs when a writer decides to reproduce dialect by spelling by how the word sounds (also called pronunciation respelling). As Jennifer Sommer observes, dialect adds a level of authenticity.[§] Used respectfully, it can identify where a character is from or help establish the setting (eg, “y’all” suggests the southern United States). In contrast, other uses of nonstandard spelling can be thought provoking. Throughout Beloved, Toni Morrison spells words such as “whitelady”, “coloredfolk”, and “blackman” without a space between the person(s) and their race. Beloved focuses on the pervasive damage slavery inflicted on former black slaves and how it destroys their sense of personhood. With the mere deletion of a space, Morrison points out how (even today) we view people through the lens of racial identity versus their individuality.


Emphasis (eg, bold, italics, underline, small caps, capitalization) in written language serves the purpose of drawing attention to the text, and it’s strikingly similar to the goal writers have when they use emphasis unconventionally. However, the quintessential difference lies in why emphasis is being employed. Traditional use of emphasis works something like a helpful signpost as we travel through a text. All capital letters appear when we read headlines or warnings, boldface titles mark the start of a new section, a capital letter starts a sentence, italics let us know that phrase isn’t misspelled but comes from another language, and so forth. They point to transitions and notify us when we need to observe something more carefully.

Writing Done Wrong: Breaking Rules to Grab the Reader’s Attention. Text by Rita E. Gould
Much like nonstandard spelling for dialect, unconventional emphasis can visually convey information about speech.[**] Terry Pratchett used this approach to characterize Death (from the Discworld series) by having him speak in small caps, because his skeletal form lacks vocal cords. Therefore, his “hollow voice” resounds directly in the listener’s brain.

Unconventional usage of emphasis, however, asks the readers to pay attention to the text’s content. Conventionally, the pronoun “I” is always capitalized. E. E. Cummings chose to forgo this formality in his poem, “i like my body when it’s with your”, a tactic that immerses the reader into an intimate environment where a lover engages in pillow talk. While there are moments when unconventional emphasis points to a transition, such instances tend to make us focus more carefully on the text. Han Kang’s novel, The Vegetarian (trans. Deborah Smith) contains a chunk of italicized text that interrupts the narrative of that section’s primary narrator (Mr. Cheong) and switches to another character’s dream (his wife, Yeong-hye). But italics signal more than this transition.[††] Yeong-hye, as I noted elsewhere, is nearly unknowable character in a story about her mental illness, partly because she does not serve as one of the primary narrators. This passage and other, increasingly shorter disjointed statements (also italicized) provide a nebulous insight into her deteriorating mental state, but the reader never finds a definitive reason as to why her sanity falters.

Unorthodox Orthography

Providing an overarching reason as to why writers decide to ignore conventional orthography is difficult because these decisions serve multiple purposes, whether the writer asks the reader to lean in and hear how people speak or whether they challenge us to think about race and mental health. What these examples have in common, though, is that authors use these techniques to stimulate their readers’ curiosity. The result is that the reader becomes an active participant in their reading, following the clues that inform the text. As such, discarding conventions such as these provides writers with another means by which they engage their readers.


[*] Consider it an occupational hazard that makes reading menus rather unpleasant.

[†] Kurt Vonnegut’s distaste for semicolons comes to mind.

[‡] Colloquially speaking, we’d call this grammar. But since we’re looking at general rules for how language appears on the page, I’m going to stick with the fustier term.

[§] Sommer’s article focuses mostly on objections to dialect, but there are examples illustrating sensitive uses of dialect.

[**] On the topic of how emphasis conveys speech, I considered mentioning that all caps is the visual equivalent of shouting, but it’s become quite common in the post-Internet era.  Arguably, using all caps to depict shouting could be considered common enough to be a convention.

[††] Eowyn Ivey uses italics to offset correspondence (ie, note a narrative transition) in The Snow Child, but this strikes me as an unnecessary flourish as the use of letter formatting adequately conveys this information.

An Alaskan Legend: Velma Wallis’s Two Old Women

“Let us die trying.”

Before I visited Alaska last year, I decided to read a few books beforehand to complement my travels. Although my trip occurred during summer,[*] reminders of the severe winters were everywhere, suggesting the snow and ice could return at any moment. Alaskan literature, as befitting a place that both borders and resides within the Arctic Circle, reflects the dominance of winter with its tales of frozen landscapes and  survival.[†]

alaska legend wallis plow posts
Traveling from Skagway, Alaska, to Frasier, Canada, the roads are marked with these poles to guide snowplows. They were level to windows on the coach bus. (Photo by Rita E. Gould.)

The Gwich’in and Life in the Boreal Forest

Both winter’s harshness and the human struggle to survive feature heavily in Velma Wallis’s retelling of a Gwich’in Athabaskan Native American legend about two unlikely heroes: the eponymous elderly women. Long before Western people came to Alaska, the People (as the Gwich’in called themselves) lived in the boreal forest. Much like other First Peoples whose survival depended on hunting and gathering berries and edible plants, they moved camp frequently to follow game. Working together harmoniously was important to their existence. Everyone who could contribute needed to do so to ensure their survival. Even so, the land did not always provide sufficient resources.

An Alaskan Legend

In Two Old Women, this very disaster occurs. By late fall, the People cannot find game and face starvation. Their leader makes a shocking decision: when they leave camp, they will go without the two old women, Sa’ and Ch’idzigyaak. Despite their fondness for these women, the brutal logic of survival dictates that they should not waste resources on those who will soon die. The stunned women silently accept their fate, and no one protests their abandonment—not even Chi’dzigyaak’s daughter and grandson. Questioning the ways of the People was not condoned and could lead to ostracism and exile.[‡] Boldly though, both leave useful gifts behind for the women: an ax and babiche (rawhide strips).[§]

The two women decide to “Let us die trying”, to attempt surviving despite the odds. Most of the novel is marked by this weary but increasingly determined spirit to endure despite their age-related infirmities, isolation, and desperate circumstances. Renowned more for their complaining natures than their contributions to the band,[**] the women’s transformation to independent, strong survivors is difficult yet amazing. They realize, as they brush off rusty skills, that they let themselves rely too much on younger people when they could still care for themselves. No less remarkable is their eventual reconciliation with their band and Chi’dziyaak with her family. From weakness to strength, this tale inspires.

An Alaskan Legend: Velma Wallis's Two Old Women. Text and Photo by Rita E. Gould
Sitka spruce (Alaskan Rainforest Sanctuary, Ketchikan, Alaska. Photo by Rita E. Gould).

Sharing an Oral Tradition

In the preface, Wallis explains that Gwich’in legends are shared as gifts. Her mother shared this tale because she (Wallis’s mother) felt proud that she could still perform the heavy chores necessary for caring for herself despite advancing age. And part of this story’s charms lies in the sense that, true to the oral tradition from which it came, it reads as though it were spoken aloud. Wallis’s telling also captures this sense of pride in one’s capability as well as the terrible beauty of the land: snow-laden spruce, the Northern lights, and ice rivers that may or may not be solid underfoot. Her sensitive yet honest approach show the harsh decisions her people sometimes made from desperation but still allows us to see how kindness and genuine affection prevail. Wallis’s gift to us is a window to her culture and an uplifting tale to warm our hearts on a cold winter’s eve.


[*] During my visit to the southeastern coast in July, temperatures ranged from 55°F to 70°F (12.7°C –21.1°C), depending on time of day, elevation, and weather. July weather near my home ranged from 83°F to 94°F (28.3°C – 34.4°C).

[†] This facet remained true even in novels set in more recent times (Eowyn Ivey’s Snow Child [1920s], and Seth Kantner’s Ordinary Wolves [1960s–1970s]). Despite access to technology the Gwi’chin did not have, small mistakes, accidents, and illness led to deaths in the frozen climes.

[‡] These themes are explored more in depth in Wallis’s follow-up novel, Bird Girl and the Man Who Followed the Sun.

[§] Mistreating or losing an ax could have severe consequences for Ch’idzigyaak’s grandson, just as leaving a valuable resource such as babiche could do the same for her daughter.

[**] Wallis makes it clear complaining wasn’t usually tolerated and was viewed as a weakness; the women were humored (presumably) due the People’s fondness for them. However, as Sa’ and Ch’idzigyaak decide, their complaints may have convinced their band and their chief that they were no longer competent enough to endure a harsh winter.