Today I heard two teachers (two very smart teachers, I might add) talking outside of my office. They are assembling a curriculum to teach middle grade students how to craft digital stories. One teacher said, “There’s no wrong way to take that photograph, as long as you compose it intentionally.”

I immediately grabbed my journal from my bag and scribbled this sentence inside. It sums up something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

At a gathering of emerging writers earlier this month, we participated in a mock panel for a writing competition. We read five short texts in five different genres and had to agree on three that would win a [mock] award. When I was reading the texts, I feared that I was favoring the personal essay because it’s “my genre,” and I could see and appreciate the craft of the essay more than I was able to see and appreciate the craft in other genres (i.e., poetry). But I was shocked to discover that I was alone in this thinking. Everyone else in the room (or at least the vocal ones) seemed to be really hard on the texts in their own genre. Like really hard.

I happened to be sitting next to a fiction writer that I think is very smart, so I pried her for explanation. What did she think was so bad about that fiction piece we read? I, by the way, had voted for it; it was my choice for first prize. My brilliant writing colleague was quite articulate in what flaws she saw in the story, so I shut up. But this little voice in my head kept nagging, “Aren’t all of those things she sees wrong the POINT of the story? It is, after all, written in first person, so there could be some character development work going on that makes the text look imperfect as far as storytelling goes.” It wasn’t my brilliant colleague’s voice telling the story, see, it was the well developed immature character in the text telling the story. So of course he didn’t tell the story as well as she could have.

Still, lots of great writers left that mock panel muttering under their breath, saying they felt the exercise just contradicted everything they’d spent years learning about good writing craft.

I’ve reread the two texts that my colleagues objected to most, and I’m convinced that the authors of those texts “broke the rules” on purpose. One was breaking the rules to establish a character who also happened to narrate the story. The other was breaking the rules to show how his thinking had changed as a result of a volunteer experience in a third world country.

So today, when I heard this smart teacher say that there’s no wrong way to take a photograph as long as you choose the composition intentionally, I thought, “THAT’S IT!” There are no rules, writers. There are only decisions to be made about how to put words together to best represent your meaning.

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