We have to be good before we can be bad

The TrocksI recently saw (for the fifth time) the Le Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo. Watching this talented all-male comic-ballet dance troupe got me to thinking about writing. (Stay with me here.)

If you have never seen the Trocks, they are full-size (not petite) men who don tutus and dance traditionally female roles (their Swan Lake rivals most “traditional” versions I’ve seen). They may do comic dancing, but they are also perfection. They show this quite well in their dancing.


As I watched these adult men with body hair doing pirouettes and other fancy moves while wearing tutus, my mind turned to how what I was seeing related to writing. I frequently read comments in a writers group I belong to about how “rules are made to be broken” and while that is true (to a point), the rules must be thoroughly learned and clearly understood before breaking them. The Trocks are proof that you must have perfected a talent before you can pretend to be bad at it.

If they weren’t at the top of their game as dancers, their foibles would just look like mistakes or amateur dancing. Instead, their mistakes come off as hilarious. Gymnast Paul Hunt illustrates this same principal in his comedy gymnastics routines, performing as Paulette Huntinova. He is perfection in gymnastics, so his comic routines are all the more eye-popping and amazing. And funny.

The problem with writers who “break the rules” without ever having learned the rules is that their writing doesn’t look like they broke the rules. Their writing just looks amateur and, well… crappy. Bad grammar, bad punctuation, poor structure (sentences, paragraphs, chapters), POV jumps, and show vs tell, when done because the writer doesn’t know how to do them properly, really do stick out like a sore thumb.

I see what you did there birdOn the other hand, when a writer knows all the “rules” then that writer can purposely break a rule for beautiful and gripping effect. That writer is the Trocks or the Paul Hunt of writing. Instead of a “this writing sucks” response from a reader, the response is more akin to “I see what you did there. Most excellent.”

I’ve no doubt there are savants in writing just as in painting, sculpture, music, etc. And these few might just have a knack for breaking the rules in the right way. 

In my experience, however, it’s often the newbie writers who use the “rules were made to be broken” claim. I’ve read it in social media writers groups and I’ve seen it in critique groups. I once belonged to a critique group with a member who was new to writing. He’d been excited at an invitation to join us, but all of our corrections and recommendations were met with “that’s how I want do to it; it’s my style” arguments. 

It quickly became clear he didn’t know even the most basic rules (such as present vs past tense) and had no interest in learning. He didn’t stay long in our group – he chose to leave, saying we were slowing him down and he was going to write and self-publish in his own style.

1800s teacherSeveral times on social media, I’ve read the same response when new writers are corrected by seasoned veterans. The new writers throw out the “you’re just old fashioned, I’m trendy” argument when, in fact, they’re just bad at writing. Their story idea may be good, but they refuse to address their bad writing mechanics.

Perhaps I am old fashioned I still believe that punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and overall grammar matter in writing. I believe that when a rule is broken, it should be deliberate and with a specific purpose in mind. 

I also believe the premise “we have to be good before we can be bad” applies to any art or skill. I’m referring specifically to the mechanics and rules of the chosen art/skill, not the chosen subject for presentation. I would say to you, whatever hobby, craft, career, art, or past time you choose, be sure to master it. Then when you cut corners, break rules, or choose a quirky representation, people will recognize both your skill at doing it right, and your skill at “doing it wrong”.

And now I’m curious to know what others think. Do you believe it is not necessary to actually learn a craft in order to “break it” with style? Do you believe (as I do) that one must perfect a craft before having the skill to successfully break the rules? Please comment and share your thoughts.


  1. Joseph Freenor:

    I think people need to learn how to write. A lot of them are more enamored with the title of “writer” than they are with the very hard work that is necessary to actually learn that title.

    I am also a cabinetmaker and have learned quite a bit about woodworking in the last 25 years or so. My father-in-law has a little workshop in which he makes nothing but crap. It’s because he absolutely will not learn the methodology involved in woodworking. He wants to “express himself,” but one does that best after one has actually learned the rudiments of the craft itself.

    I took five years of woodworking courses. At one point in one of those classes thirty students all had blocks of wood in vises on their work benches and were cutting dovetails while the instructor went from work bench to work bench, urging students to life an elbow higher, or make it lower. I took classes in which we learned how many threads were on various bolts and how many teeth one needed on saw blades to keep them from bouncing about when making a cut.

    I just finished a glorious home theater and am currently working on a built-in hutch. But before I did those things I paid my dues.


    • janet:

      Thanks Joseph. You’re right. Whatever your craft, you must expect to “pay your dues.” And I’ve seen some of your work online. It’s gorgeous. Your dues are paid in full. :-)


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