If you’ve been following me for any length of time, you’ll know that I believe most “rules of writing” need a good hard reality check.
Many times, when asked for rules, a writer will recommend their writing practices, and that’s not at all the same thing as universal rules.
I recently read an article by an author who was asked to list ten rules for other writers to follow. Here are two examples (in blue) and my personal reactions:
Rule #1.) Avoid using too many adjectives and adverbs: strong writing demands strong nouns and verbs.
You all know how I feel about the adverb rule; with this new rule, adjectives are also thrown onto the list of “don’t use” words, effectively cutting our recommended usage down to about half the words available in the English vocabulary.
Ironically, though, this sentence contains three adjectives and an adverb – 4 out of the 14 words (almost 30%) should not be used, according to the rule itself. Yet if you take them out, the meaning, especially for the second phrase, is completely skewed:
Avoid using adjectives and adverbs: writing demands nouns and verbs.
(Looking for the adverb? It’s “too”. Contrary to popular myth, not all adverbs end in “ly”. Adverbs not only modify verbs, they also modify adjectives and other adverbs.)
Rule #2.) A noun is put to best use when it paints a definite picture of what you’re trying to say.
This one actually made me squint. Try as I might, the closest I can come to interpreting this rule is something along the lines of: never say “aardvark” when you mean “elephant”.
In all seriousness, should I never say “animal” when referring to an elephant? Or “creature” when referring to an aardvark? “Cabin” is a more precise word than “house”, which is in turn more precise than “home”, but can’t I use all of them? Using one word over and over to describe a specific dwelling (or anything else) would seem to put the writer on a path of unmitigated reader boredom (not to mention further limiting our usage of vocabulary).
(If you have another interpretation of this rule, please let me know in the comments below. I’m sure the writer had a message – I just didn’t get a definite picture of what they were trying to say!)
If we followed both the “Rules” listed above, we’d eliminate adjectives, adverbs, and synonyms. What’s left?
See Spot Run.
To summarize: whenever you see anything called a “Rule of Writing”, don’t take it at face value. Give it some real analytical thought and decide for yourself if the application of it makes sense for you.
Have you ever read a rule that had you squinting? Feel free to share it below. And stay tuned next week for the rule of “passive verbs”.
Thanks for tuning in. Slainte!