But I learned in second-grade English …

Que Seurat, Seurat: He probably didn't learn this in art school.

Que Seurat, Seurat: He probably didn’t learn this in art school.

As one who writes – mostly advertising –for a living, I hear that from people. A lot.

“I learned in second-grade English that you can’t start a sentence with ‘and’.” Or, “I was taught that it’s not a complete sentence unless it has a subject and a verb.” Or, “Miss Fussbudget drilled it into my head that you need to start out with a thesis statement.” Sometimes, even, “Mister Puffbuttock always said you should never use contractions in your writing.” Well, all of those things are probably true.

We do learn, early in our education, that it’s a “rule” that we don’t begin sentences with conjunctions. It’s a “rule” that a complete sentence contains a subject and predicate. Many things you write in school should, indeed, use the “keyhole” structure that builds a first-paragraph thesis statement. In certain forms of writing, you should avoid contractions.

When these issues come up, I like to think about a kid named Dale.

While at his North Carolina high school, young Dale played football, basketball, baseball and golf. He probably took English from Miss Fussbudget.

He dreamed of becoming a professional athlete. And he took driver’s training, where he learned the “rules” that a beginning driver must learn. Signal a lane change. Stay at or under the speed limit. Allow one car length per 10 mph. Hands at 10 and 2.

In his 20s, young Dale started fooling around with friends from work – doing odd jobs around a race track. And the racing bug bit him.

Retired since 2008, Dale Jarrett is still considered one of the top 10 all-time NASCAR drivers. He didn’t get there by following the rules of the road he learned in driver’s ed. He followed the rules of the track.

If you think about it, Georges Seurat’s second-grade art teacher would probably have been horrified by the rule-breaking of pointillism. (And don’t get me started on cubism.) Considered one of the greatest works of English literature ever, James Joyce’s Ulysses would be nothing but red marks if judged by the standards of middle-school English composition. The boundary-breaking improvisation that defined be-bop would have been frowned upon by young Dizzie Gillespie’s music teachers at the Laurinburg Institute.

In our early school days, we learn rules for the “science” of writing. Sadly, this is as far as writing education goes for most people. Those who pursue careers in writing, however, go well beyond that basic training and study the “art” of writing – just as Gillespie studied the art of the trumpet, Seurat the art of visual composition and Jarrett the art of stock car driving.

And in that advanced study, we learn it’s okay to start a sentence – even a paragraph – with a conjunction. A “fragment?” It can be a sentence. Contractions aren’t forbidden. Only a thesis-style paper should begin with a thesis statement.

It’s not necessarily breaking rules. It’s more a matter of having the skill and wisdom to know which rules can be bent, and by how much. It’s knowing what works, and, when appropriate, what wins.

In the marketing communications business, it’s a matter of playing by the rules of the track, rather than the rules of the road. On this particular track, the field is extremely crowded. The competition is fierce. The prize is your customer’s attention, interest and action. And the rules of the road probably won’t win them.

Go back and re-read great sections of your favorite novel or your favorite poem or favorite song lyrics. Watch your favorite movie, and imagine the dialog as it was born – as words written on a page. Pay attention not only to specific words and their meanings, but to their rhythm and cadence. Notice how the “rules” are bent to reflect the style of the writer, the personality of the character … and the rhythm of the character’s life. That’s what good writing does.

Good advertising writing reflects the style of the brand, the personality of the customer and the rhythm of the customer’s life. Those are skills that Miss Fussbudget couldn’t teach you in second grade. Because they take many years of practice to learn – after you’ve learned the basic rules first.

And when it comes to starting a sentence with a conjunction … you don’t need to take my word for it. The first chapter of Genesis in the King James Bible – arguably the most “formal” of all English translations – consists of 34 sentences.

Thirty-two of them begin with “And.”

And if it’s good enough for God, it’s good enough for me.

This was originally written as a newsletter article for the Princing & Ewend newsletter, way, way back in August of 2004. It has been updated. 
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