Thirty-three years later, I remember the first day of Writing 404 very clearly. I remember because I was terrified. The professor was Dr. James Dean, well-known as the most demanding instructor in the English department, if not the entire college.
I had previously taken several Lit. classes from Dr. Dean, but this was my first time in his writing class. Writing 404 was the most advanced writing class offered to undergrads. In those days, everyone took Writing 101 no matter what their major. Most people also took Writing 202. Past that, only English and Nursing majors took Writing 303, and only English majors took 404 and then only with prior permission by the instructor.
In my prior classes with the man, I had learned that Dr. Dean was a stickler for correct grammar. He had a knack for finding the wayward comma splice, the misbehaving misplaced modifier, and the delinquent split infinitive. Add to that, the man was positively death on wheels when it came to passive voice. I had passed all the previous writing classes with excellent grades, so in theory, I knew my stuff. Yet I entered class on the first day with apprehension and not a little dread.
I was quite surprised when Dr. Dean opened the class by saying, “In your previous writing classes you have learned the rules of English and how to effectively apply them. Now you are going to learn how to break them.” I was genuinely shocked. Dr. Dean wanted us to break the rules.
The class I was dreading turned out to be one of the most enjoyable undergraduate experiences. Dr. Dean taught us how and when to discard the rules. Most importantly, we learned why the rules existed and when a good writer should discard them.
If you are just starting out as a writer, by all means learn the rules and practice them religiously. Make Shrunk and White’s Elements of Style your bible. Your goal is to learn rules carefully so you can break them properly.