The Rules of Writing: A Built-In Paradox

The Rules of Writing.  So many of them are subject to discussion, if not passionate argument.  The Oxford comma, the em-dash, the sentence fragment: you’re on one side or the other.  Hardly anyone stands on the fence.

Two of the most popular and oft-quoted Rules are:

1.) Use a stronger verb instead of a verb + adverb; and
2.) Never use any words other than “said”, “asked”, and “whispered” as dialogue tags.

Do you see the paradox?  To stay true to Rule #1, you must ignore Rule #2.  To stay true to Rule #2 … well, you can see where it’s going.  But strangely enough, many people are proponents of both of these Rules.  They try to sit on both sides of the fence at once.

I’m personally a great advocate of Rule #1.  Strong verbs make stronger writing.  And when an adverb shows up to modify a verb*, a writer can usually make a better verb choice and have a more effective sentence.

So for me, the firm believer in Rule #1,  Rule #2 makes no sense whatsoever.  Is “said” a stronger verb than “murmured”, “squealed” or “protested”?  Of course it’s not.  I’ve seen people who try to get around Rule #2  by sneaking in a modifying phrase: “he said in a low tone”; “she said, her voice almost a squeal”; “he asked in protest”.  But all they’re really doing is replacing one sort of modifier with another, longer one.  Wouldn’t it make sense to use the more precise verb instead?

And how about in spoken conversation?  Do you always use “he said” this, or “she said” that when telling a story?  Don’t you sometimes say, “he told me”, “she demanded”, or “they requested”?  Why should our conversation in print be subject to rules that don’t apply to live conversation?

From those in favor of Rule #2, the main argument seems to be “the dialogue should be enough to indicate the emotion.”  And I have no quarrel with using “said”, “asked”, or “whispered” when that’s the case.  But suppose, as an example, a chapter opens with a little girl crying, and this is the next line:

“Hush,” her father said.

Is that enough for you to tell whether he’s being loving, or annoyed, or threatening?  Wouldn’t “murmured”, “bit out”, or “warned” give you more precise information?

There are undeniably times when “said/asked/whispered” will do the job, and undeniably times when it won’t.  To tie ourselves to what is essentially a limiting strategy when writing is, in my opinion, self-defeating.  The English language wouldn’t have over 200 different words for “said” if no one ever used them.

So……….which side of this particular fence do you stand on?

*Contrary to popular lore, adverbs have jobs other than modifying verbs, and they don’t all end in “-ly”!

7 thoughts on “The Rules of Writing: A Built-In Paradox

  1. Pingback: And more #RulesOfWriting | Gifford MacShane

  2. I must agree with Bruce. Rules have their uses, but to follow another’s rules of style is to confine your creativity to a prison of another’s choosing. As Thomas Wolfe ‘expostulated’, “Make your mistakes, take your chances, look silly, but keep on going. Don’t freeze up.”


    • Hi, Bonnie, and welcome!

      Someone I know (and who will remain anonymous) once said: “Rules are made up by people who don’t write well so they can criticize those who do.”

      While I’m not sure that’s exactly true, I do agree that sometimes “the rules” seem to be there for reasons other than improving one’s writing skills. If there were NO rules, we wouldn’t be able to understand one another; on the other hand, blind conformity can be the death of creativity. Like you, I’m all about “taking your chances!”



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