How and when to break the rules of writing

The recent passing of former New York mayor Ed Koch reminded me of one of my favorite feature leads of all time, written in 1980 by one of the AP’s all-time greats, Saul Pett:

“NEW YORK — He is the freshest thing to blossom in New York since chopped liver, a mixed metaphor of a politician, the antithesis of the packaged leader, irrepressible, candid, impolitic, spontaneous, funny, feisty, independent, uncowed by voter blocks, unsexy, unhandsome, unfashionable and altogether charismatic, a man oddly at peace with himself in an unpeaceful place, a mayor who preside over the country’s largest Babel with unseemly joy.”

At a time when big-shot editors declared a preference for short, straightforward leads, Pett served up long, winding ones. “I once set a course record,” he told me back then, “by writing a lead that was 280 words long. It was a long sentence describing all the confusing things that had come up in a single day at a Republican convention. It ended up with the word ‘clear?’ Of course, it wasn’t clear. But then the day’s activities weren’t clear. The length of sentences and all those mechanical standards are kind of silly.”

Like Pett, great writers are kind of rebellious.

So how do you do it? How do you break the “rules” of grammar, style, and Standard English usage? To paraphrase that great editor Gene Roberts, how do you learn to zig when ever other writer is zagging?

We discussed this in a live chat, which you can replay here:

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  • Edward Ericson Jr

    You can’t teach this. You might be able to teach editors to leave the good examples alone though. That would help.