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.

Closing with Character

The New Year and Reviewing Character

Defining character means many thing for writers. (“Character” by NY is licensed under CC by 3.0. )

The closing of the year is a jumbled-up affair: The summing up of another year juxtaposed with setting up the next year. It’s not dissimilar to beginning a revision, which I’m (finally) undertaking for a short story I recently wrote. Both processes involve reviewing what you did, what you wish you did differently, and what you will do going forward. And, in both cases, it’s a good time to think about character. Writers use numerous techniques to make their fictional persons feel alive, something that greatly interests me as I edit that first draft where the protagonist feels a bit lacking in, well, character.[*] I recently read two books, one a novel and the other a short story collection, that approach the idea of character in compelling if divergent ways that illustrate what we as writers can really do to with our characters.

Unknowable Versus Lacking Character

A clear sense of character or even lack of character, for example, isn’t necessarily a handicap to tale well told. In The Vegetarian,[†] Yeong-hye rarely speaks throughout the haunting tale that chronicles the manifestation and evolution of her madness. With the exception of an unsettling dream sequence she recounts (presumably to Mr. Cheong), her story, her words, and her life’s details are told through the perspectives of her husband, brother-in-law, and sister. She is in essence a negative presence, and each narrator can only react to her mysteriously changed behavior and/or guess at her actions. We, as readers, experience their bewilderment in tandem. The result is remarkable: Yeong-he, much like roots of her madness (and seemingly, all madness) remain unknowable.

In contrast to her absent presence, Mr. Cheong (Yeong-hye’s husband) defines a lack of character in an altogether different and entirely unpleasant manner. The Vegetarian is not a story for the fainthearted, and Mr. Cheong is clearly the most reprehensible of its denizens—chiefly because he lacks empathy and compassion. The marriage between the two is not a love match: Mr. Cheong aspires to the “middle course”[‡] and finds it “only natural that [he] would marry the most run-of-the mill woman” available (12). Clearly, he represents a certain patriarchal extreme, where marriage means about his needs are being met and indifference to his wife’s interior life, interests, and even mental health. Or, as he puts it, “The strange situation had nothing to do with me” (26). Eventually, her decline, undoubtedly worsened by his neglect and mistreatment, cannot be ignored. Of course, he abandons her; after all:

her expression, which made it seem as though she were a woman of bitter experience, who had suffered many hardships, niggled at my conscience. (38)

Characters at Crossroads

Where loss seems to shatter and/or disrupt the characters of The Vegetarian, characters in the collected stories of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This frequently find themselves at crossroads in their lives where they struggle to cope with their losses.[§] “Pine”, an exemplary story of the collection, features the widowed Claire who marvels at the choices Heidi made with her kitchen: Claire decides that, were she in Heidi’s shoes,[**] she would have chosen a smaller, easier to navigate kitchen with a pine floor to deaden the clumping gait of the prosthetic leg (155). Claire’s choices unsurprisingly are for muting: when her daughter questions her about her “friendship” with Kevin, she “think[s] about reassuring that no one could ever replace her father for me. I’m sure that is what she’s really asking” (164). It’s not. Alyssa suspects that Kevin has feelings for her mother and, in insisting Kevin is welcome to attend her soccer game, is assuring her mother that she’s okay with Claire moving forward. Claire instead focuses on how soon she will be losing her daughter to adulthood (165) and keeping Kevin as her “yes-man”—or more accurately, her emotional crutch that prevents her from moving past her widowhood (158-9, 172-3). Both Heidi and Claire have suffered terrible losses due to cancer. Their approach to these losses comes down to character: Heidi eventually found within herself the grit to get on with her life, while Claire (for now) remains exactly where she stood when Joe died.

Defining Character

Character, as Merriam-Webster has kindly reminded me, is complex word that refers to  more than persons of fictional works. It ranges from alphabetic markings to reputation. It suggests moral make-up of individual as well as the identity of groups.[††] It is word that encompasses much, and you need context to understand which character you happen to be dealing with, whether they lack, morals, or strength. Characters of fiction, too, need that complexity or even that mystery to make them real. As I go forward into the New Year, editing away, I’ll be sure to keep my character’s character and this complexity in mind. And, perhaps, mine as well.

Happy New Year!

Which characters caught your attention in 2016? Tell us about whom and why in the comment section below. Also, sign-up to the Sequences’s newsletter to keep current with the latest posts.


[*] New Year’s resolution #1: take it easy on puns.

[†] Kang, Han. Vegetarian: A Novel; Trans. by Deborah Smith. New York: Hogarth, 2015. Print.

[‡] I’m uncomfortably reminded of the advice that Robinson Crusoe’s father gave him about choosing the “middle state” of life at this moment. (Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. New York: Bantam, 1991.)

[§] Black Robin. If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories. New York, Random House, 2011.

[**] And resolution broken! Amusingly, Claire also considers whether Heidi is “more in denial” about her circumstances (155).
[††] “Character.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2016.