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.

Public Reading: For the Love of Libraries

We were book lovers, so we went to the library as often as we could: After all, it felt like another home.

“I always knew from that moment, from the time I found myself at home in that little segregated library in the South…I always felt, in any town, if I can get to a library, I’ll be OK.” –Dr. Maya Angelou[*]

As a child, I inhabited my hometown’s library. I swept through the familiar stacks, seeking books I hadn’t yet read or favorites to re-read. In the background, I could overhear my mother discussing my reading level with the children’s librarian. The same librarian hosted the story hour. She’d sit nearly surrounded by a semi-circle of children, showing us the pages as she slowly read them aloud. Afterwards, I could check out as many books as I could carry—and I frequently needed to tuck the stack under my chin to avoid dropping them.[†] I finished roughly half of the books before my mother drove us home. We were book lovers, so we went to the library as often as we could: After all, it felt like another home.

Literary Libraries

Of course, I found echoes of myself in books featuring other bookworms and the libraries in which they lost themselves, the librarians which they befriended. My favorite part of Robin McKinley’s version of the Beauty[‡] and the Beast story involved reading.[§] The novel features a bookish heroine who marvels at the books she finds in the Beast’s library, some of which have not yet been written.[**] Considering how many times and how long I’ve waited for sequels to be published, I’m confident that this magical library is a bookworm’s dream. In the Discworld series, however, it’s not only possible to find books that have yet to be written but also to travel through time and to different places through L-space (that is, library space).[††] In some way, I’ve always felt this to be true of reading. How often had I found myself lost in book only to surprised when I became aware again of my actual surroundings? And these novels also feature the Librarian of the Unseen University, once a human wizard who found key advantages in being transformed into orangutan.[‡‡] Never saying much more than “Ook”, he manages to communicate his meaning all the same and he’s good to have on your side. His unique approach to helping is entirely in keeping with what I know of librarians, all of whom work hard to serve the public.[§§]

The Power of Real Libraries

And if libraries mean the world to a someone whose childhood was reasonably comfortable, imagine the difference they make to children with different backgrounds. Dr. Maya Angelou spoke of her first library as a soothing balm, the kind that helped her find her words again and her vocation. For another young woman, libraries acted as an equalizer. Although she could not afford to buy books the way her friends did, her free public library card permitted to read nonetheless. Even coming from a family that collected books, I know there’s many books I would not have read without this free access. And libraries don’t just hold books. Poet/filmmaker Greta Bellamacina shared that libraries provided a quiet place to study that her home lacked. Libraries provide safe places.

For these reasons, I feel dismay whenever I read about efforts to defund public libraries. Since I’d personally prefer that Fahrenheit 451 remain a work of fiction,[***] I urge readers to get out and support our community libraries and fund groups that protect libraries. I would like my child to continue reading all those books eagerly, after story hour, the way I did. I’d like all children to have that second home to visit.

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[*] Library, The New York Public. “Interview: How Libraries Changed Maya Angelou’s Life.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2017. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/the-new-york-public-library/interview-how-libraries-c_b_775980.html>.

[†] Naturally, this librarian also ran the summer reading program, which I read for the way some kids train for sports.

[‡] Technically, her name was Honour, but she got herself nicknamed “Beauty” as a young child by insisting she’d rather be called beauty. Of course, the name stuck, which made her awkward teen years so much more…awkward.

[§] McKinley, Robin. Beauty: a retelling of the story of Beauty & the beast. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1978.

[**] For the record, this novel predates the Disney film.

[††] Pratchett, Terry. Guards! Guards! New York: HarperTorch, 2001.

[‡‡] Obtaining books from the top shelves features highly on this list.

[§§] Although, their approach involves less implied violence.

[***] Not to mention The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984.

Coming Clean About My Writing

And then I realized that when I ran away from my screen to clean…I was still writing my story.

Writing distractions abound when you’re not sure where to go next in your text. In college, when I’d get stuck writing a story or paper, I’d find myself drifting away from my pen and pad or my keyboard and monitor. I often paced, feeling wired with repressed energy, the wanting to say but not knowing what to say just yet. Somewhere along the way, though, that energy found another outlet: tidying up.

Yeah, I know. Probably the most perplexing form of procrastination ever.[*]

Because I’m not actually a neat freak. I don’t recommend eating off my floors (or anyone else’s). Frankly, writers tend toward untidy when they’re in progress (I literally spread notes everywhere). And last I checked, cleaning doesn’t get me to the conclusion faster–especially when the deadline is looming. Nonetheless, some deep subconscious place in my brain insists that the glacial white of an empty screen must be matched by clean countertops. That, when I need to give my text a think-through, I should also clear away the clutter.

Fine, brain. Be that way.

This summer, though, I had an epiphany during an online writing course I undertook. Of all the writing classes I’ve done, it was the first that focused more on how I wrote versus what I wrote. In particular, we (the class) individually examined facets of our writing process. As I worked on a story and thought about my characters, I once again found myself frustrated with how I slipped away and did something else while I puzzled over how my scene should unfold. And then I realized that when I ran away from my screen to clean…I was still writing my story. Apparently, I’m also not the only person with this approach, either.

So, not procrastination? Well, sort of.

I also know now that I wander off when I’m not writing well or I don’t feel comfortable with what I’m writing[†] as well as when the real world disrupts me (#Election 2016). In this case, I consciously decide whether I take a writing break or shift onto other, more productive writing tasks. Instead of worrying or procrastinating, I research topics or plan new projects. Or I take a break and clear my head (and my desk). When I come back, I am more confident and readier to write.

As for thinking through my writing process? It was worthwhile, because knowing how I write helps me write better by harnessing the moments when it’s not going well.[‡]


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[*] But I did need to do laundry, so that’s a win. Not for the blog, but for the general public.

[†] Like writing my first blog post ever. You know that I-don’t-know-anyone-at-the-party-but-the-hostess feeling that introverts get when they have to meet new people because introductions are awkward? Yeah, I feel that way right now, because this is essentially an introduction. My “Hello, world!”, you might say. So, hello!

[‡] Laundry: Two loads

Dishwasher: Emptied and reloaded

Table: Washed and cleared away

Notes: Spread out, lost, and tidied more times than I want to count

Pacing: 6000+ steps

And yes, these footnotes are both inspired by and an homage to the late Terry Pratchett.