Saturday, 28 April 2012

Rules for Writing

Whenever I write a post about the linguistic principles underlying common writing rules, someone suggests I should write a book about this stuff. One day I might well do that, but I thought I'd start with a series of essays here, and see whether it ends up book-length after a few months.

So I have a question for all of my readers - many of whom, I know, also enjoy writing. What writing rules have you heard thrown around? I don't at this stage mind whether you agree with them or not (there are, after all, exceptions to everything). I'm interested in capturing a big list of rules and cliches, and I'll work on explaining those that I can, from a scientific linguist's perspective.

As a starter for ten, here are a few rules off the top of my head. I've heard all these repeated often, and usually without any particular explanation attached:
Please feel free to leave your own ideas in the comments, and/or vote for those you'd most like me to write about. (The links are to posts I've already written.)


J.P Hansen said...

I don't agree with any of the above rules, at least not without caveats. I don't agree with the ones below, either:

1. Don't split infinitives.
2. Use the thesaurus.
3. Avoid flippancy.
4. Write for one person, your ideal audience member.
5. Vary sentence length and complexity.
6. Focus paragraphs around a single topic.

Chaelen said...

I don't agree with any of the above either. I think language is far too flexible and rich for such absolutes and if all of the above were followed by all of us, books would become much less textured to read.

Personally I follow my instincts. I try to avoid overuse of adverbs but I won't avoid them altogether. Dialogue should be reasonably realistic but you yourself wrote an excellent post on why dialogue shouldn't sound -too- natural. And while I can appreciate the merits of reading a book out loud, the vast majority of people will read it, not hear it and I don't believe that the two experiences are all that similar.

Prologues, well. The ones that consist of about 10,000 words of ancient history before you get into the story are often very dull, but it's taking it too far to say that all of them should be scrapped.

I definitely don't agree with cutting out all words except "said" for speech. Unutterably dull, and that would fall foul of another oft-quoted writing rule about not being repetitive and using the same words over and over.

And that's one of the biggest problems with writing rules: they contradict each other and most of them are great when applied moderately but destructive when taken to extremes.

Much like everything else in life I suppose!

Anonymous said...

I can't think of any 'rules' off the top of my head, but when I do, I will stop by and drop them off :)

However, I do have to say that I definitely don't agree with 'show, don't tell'. I've been reading a lot of Fitzgerald lately, and I just love how he tells and doesn't show. Or maybe that's just me, enjoying 'passive' rather than 'active' action.

Life With Captain Fussybuckets said...

I like to stick with the basics....spell words correctly and use proper grammar. Those two are toughies for a lot of people. ;)

emma said...

I've heard of most of them, and I'm really looking forward to reading the scientific explanations for them as I've never understood why, for example you shouldn't use the passive voice. Even MS Word always tells me off for this!

I hadn't heard the one about not having prologues and epilogues. I definitely quite like prologues, especially if they're from a different perspective to the main story.

Steven J Pemberton said...

I don't believe there are any rules as such in writing, except perhaps "keep the reader turning the pages" (that is, don't be boring). For any rule you might mention, there's at least one successful book that ignores or breaks it. There are, however, a dizzying number of conventions and expectations, which you get to ignore if you're sufficiently talented and/or sufficiently famous. If you want people to read and enjoy your work, you need to learn the expectations. Then when you ignore them, you know you're ignoring them, and know why you're ignoring them.

I agree with your suggestions, except as follows:

- Don't use adverbs - unless there isn't a specific verb that has the meaning you want.
- Show don't tell - agree, although a good writer can make a background lecture interesting.
- Scrap prologues & epilogues - mostly agree - sometimes they're necessary.

A few suggestions for other "rules"...

- Write something every day, even if it's only a sentence. If you can't write every day, write to a regular schedule. This keeps your current project near the front of your mind, so you're thinking about it when you're not writing. That way, when you sit down to write, you have some idea what you're going to say, so you can get started right away, instead of staring at the screen or page for half an hour before giving up in disgust.

- Don't try to edit as you go along (unless, perhaps, it's something that's short enough to fit in your head in one piece). That's a recipe for never finishing. Write the whole first draft, then edit it. If, while you're writing the first draft, you change your mind about something you've already written, make a note of it, and then carry on writing as if you'd already changed it. If you go back and change it, you'll be tempted to change lots of other things in the relevant passages, which means some parts of the story will get much more editing than others. And if you change your mind again, you only have to rewrite the relevant parts once, instead of every time you change your mind.

- When you start editing, ask yourself, "What's the main plot? If I have any subplots, what are those? Who are the main characters? How do they develop over the course of the story?" The answers might not be what you thought they were when you started writing. Look at each scene and ask yourself, "Does it move the plot or a subplot forward? Does it reveal something important or interesting about a main character, or contribute to his development?" If you can't answer yes to at least one of those, then delete the scene, no matter how beautiful or cool it is. Then start polishing what's left.

(Fantasy writers are doubtless gnashing their teeth about the last one, saying, "Don't you want the sense of being immersed in another world?" Yes I do, but there has to be a story there too. Otherwise it's just a travelogue. There is a school of thought that says you can consider the setting of a story as another character, so you can reveal interesting things about it, and even allow for it to change... but if the scenery is regularly more interesting than the actors, you have a serious problem...)

Tabor said...

Have not had time to read all your readers comments but I while I do not like those rules I do agree with Show don't tell as much as possible.

The Literary Lioness said...

I get bored using "said" all the time. In a short story, maybe, but not in a book!

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Sylvia Kalisch said...

Hi Rachel

This sounds like an interesting project. I love the way language works on so many different levels and in such varied situations. Rather than quoting any rules I believe that language consists of lots of different tools that have different effects, eg writing in the present tense gives a sense of immediacy and involvement if used correctly even though it is a paradox as you can't possibly share in the presence of the writer.

Another example is the use of slang or local dialect. This can grind quite badly when read rather than listened to (aha, passive voice) but can give a good bit of colour to characters.

One last thought for now, language works differently in different languages. For example, in German, sentences tend to be much longer and more complex, as our fine rules of grammar allow us to play much more with sentence structures. I'd be interested in your analyses and compare them to what I think is good writing in German.

So, without knowing the reader and the context in which they will read a piece, rules can only ever be suggestions in my mind. However, I agree with "Life With Captain Fussybuckets" that you need to use correct spelling and grammar as far as is accepted practice because otherwise you are using blunt or incorrect tools to convey your message.

Jeanne said...

As general rules of thumb, I agree with ALL those rules. And, as a practice, I break all of them sometimes.

Here's my addition: Make something happen in every scene. Some value must change, or the scene is just narrative. If your character goes into the scene feeling like she can really count on her friends, have her exit the scene realizing maybe she can't (Or vice-versa. Or some other change.) Don't make me wade through a lot of scenes where NOTHING HAPPENS.

And what happens should lead, directly or indirectly, to where you, the author, want your character wind up.

Jenny Woolf said...

Show not tell. I don't always entirely agree with this!

Jenny Woolf said...

I must try and remember to come back to read this post and comments again, I am just about to go out now, but it's an interesting question.

Mistress of the Kitchen said...

Everyone should read the book Eats Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. It is a hilarious book about grammar and punctuation.

From the excerpt on the back cover:

"A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

"Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

"I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up."

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

"Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

So, punctuation really does matter, even if it is only occasionally a matter of life and death."

Anonymous said...

"Kill your darlings" - that is, if you're particularly proud of a turn of phrase, it's probably too complex or simply unnecessary. It was the precept of a famous American journalist, I think.

Other than that - if you want to be a writer, write, don't just think about it!

Blond Duck said...

Adverbs and adjectives. And writing animal personification.

Fly Girl said...

These are all tried and true writing classics that I always tell my journalism students. The only thing different is that magazine writers use the present tense "says" instead of said.

Jules Woolford said...

From the reader's (my!)perspective this is very interesting. How dull for us if everyone stuck to 'the rules!'

I'm with Chaelen - follow your instincts authors, please.

Charlotte Klein said...

Thank you for this. Many times in my short-lived writing career I've been told to "show don't tell." It's something I am always working on and think could only improve my writing. While I don't necessarily agree with all the rules here, there are many that will come in handy.

Hope you are well, Rachel! Xoxo

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