AN ESSAY ON WRITING: The “Rules”

Let me first say that I believe in rules. I’m one of those people who loves to diagram sentences (yeah, I know). When too many of the rules get broken, the diagram looks just like chicken-scratch. On the other hand, sometimes it seems that rules are created just so we can have rules.

These days, two of the most common rules about writing are:

1.)  A good writer uses only “said”, “whispered”, and “asked” when creating dialogue; and

2.)  A good writer never, ever changes points of view within a chapter/scene.

Recently these rules were repeated to me by two separate and unequal sources. Now I know my style, and even if it weren’t for others pointing it out to me, I know that I do not follow these particular constraints.

So I decided to see how well the rules were observed in “real life” (or “real writing” if you prefer). I chose four books from my shelves: one was a classic; two were from NY Times best-selling authors, one current and one by an author who died a few years ago; and the last one was by an author I’m very fond of, but whose once-popular works now get very little attention. I opened the books at random and read ten pages of each.

This is what I discovered:

1.)  “Said”, “whispered”, and “asked” were used exclusively in dialogue by none of the authors. The average usage was just over 50%, with the classic being highest in adherence, and one of the NYT best-sellers being lowest. The dialogue scenes were sprinkled with a variety of terms, including: began, continued, replied, queried, challenged, demanded, shouted, barked, stuttered, told, murmured, gasped, objected, and even “squeaked”.

2.) Each author also changed their point of view within those ten pages. This time, the classic led the pack, doing it three times (and by that I mean back and forth, so if you’re feeling generous, you may want to consider it as six times). Each of the other authors did it twice, and one of them was writing in the first person, where you would not expect it to happen at all.

So what’s the moral of the story?

1.)  Rules are made up by those who don’t write well to annoy those who do;

2.)  It’s more important to write with clarity and sincerity than it is to always follow all of the rules; or

3.)  Blame Hemingway.

Feel free to state your opinion — I‘d really like to hear it. I, for one, am going to continue to ignore these rules, as well as the rule on split infinitives (but you’ve probably guessed that by now).

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