7 Great Authors Take on the “RULES OF WRITING”

We’ve all heard about the RULES we need to follow in order to be “good” writers. No adverbs, no passive voice, no split infinitives, show don’t tell, limit dialogue tags to “said” & “asked”, use only one POV per chapter―these are just a few of the absolutes we’re faced with every day.

I’ve heard some RULES that are downright silly, such as: only one comma per sentence; no more than 4 sentences per paragraph; no conjunctions. The latest one to make the make the rounds is “no gerunds”, where most proponents of the RULE think a gerund is any word ending in “ing”. (It’s not. In fact, the only two gerunds in this article are “writing” and “painting”. For more info, read this post.)

The problem, it seems to me, is taking the style choice an author has made and proclaiming it a universal RULE.

Yes, I said “style choice”. You can decide that adverbs are not for you, that you always want to show and not tell, or to use no dialogue tags at all. A thriller writer may make some choices that a literary writer might denounce. But imagine if everyone took their favorite style choice and pronounced it a RULE for all to follow. That would almost surely lead to a cookie-cutter approach to writing, and individual creativity would suffer.

What would the state of literature today be if Faulkner followed Hemingway’s choices? if Fitzgerald was ruled by Cervantes? if Cain followed Chaucer’s? Cormac McCarthy consistently uses only the period and comma as punctuation. Should we all, as modern writers, follow his example?

pile of books

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Don’t be so blinded by the authority behind a RULE that the choice you make hurts instead of helping. Focus on the rhythm of your work first―do you want staccato or lyrical? are you chasing a serial killer or relating a love story? or maybe both in one novel? There is no RULE that says you can’t have it all as you craft your manuscript.

The rhythm you seek will give you the choices that best benefit your story. Then you can join the ranks of these esteemed authors who know all the RULES and when to break them:

Truman Capote: Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the RULES to suit yourself.

Henry David Thoreau: Any fool can make a RULE, And any fool will mind it.

Scott Turow: I think that you must be aware of the existing conventions. …That does not mean that you cannot reinvent them in your own way.

Anne Rice: …any RULE you hear from one writer [that] doesn’t work for you, disregard it completely.

Neil Gaiman: The main RULE of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a RULE for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other RULES. Not ones that matter.

G. K. Chesterton: I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.

Joyce Carol Oates: Best tip for writers: not to listen to any silly tips for writers.

The Rules of Writing: No Gerunds?

While doing research recently for an ESL student, I came across another “rule of writing”, to wit:

Don’t use gerunds; they make your writing weak.

To qualify as a gerund a word must be:

  1. a verb with an “ing” suffix
  2. that performs the job of a noun.

Take these sentences as examples:

I like hiking. (The gerund acts as the object of the sentence.)

Hiking is fun. (The gerund acts as the subject of the sentence.)

Now, I guess you could eliminate the gerund in the first sentence by saying “I like to hike”, but I don’t see much difference between the two statements. I think your choice would depend more on what your character’s natural speech patterns are than on any “rule”. (And if, like me, your manuscripts run over the recommended length for your genre, every little added “to” means you have to cut another word―a fate worse than death!)

Rewriting the second sentence as “To hike is fun” makes it sound formal. It gives me the feeling I’m reading a foreign translation rather than common American parlance.

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And here’s the other, more important thing: in every article I read, the proponents of the “no gerund rule” were really objecting to sentences like this:

I was hiking in the woods.

But “hiking”, in this instance, fails to meet the qualifications for a gerund. It ends in “ing”, but it’s not acting as a noun. It’s part of the verb construction, specifically the past progressive tense.

So what the “no gerunds rule” proponents are trying to say is: there’s a “no progressive tenses rule”. By various examples, they also declare that there’s a “no conditional tenses rule”, and/or a “no perfect/pluperfect tenses rule”. In other words, write only in simple present, simple past, or imperfect tense.

How boring!

The reasoning, from what I gather, is that all these other tenses fall into a subset of the “active/passive rule”. For a “more active” sentence, they’d encouraged you to write it this way:

I hiked in the woods.

However, the rewrite doesn’t give me the same anticipation factor. If you start a dialogue with “I was hiking in the woods…”, I’m immediately looking for a story to follow. “I hiked in the woods” is more self-contained, an answer to the question, “What did you do today?” It doesn’t give me a sense of more to come. So for me, it’s a less appealing choice, and even less so if you’re creating a scene of rising tension.

(See what I did there? In the last sentence, I used three words that end in “ing” and not one of them is a gerund. Don’t fall into the same trap the “no gerunds rule” folks did!)

In my opinion, most of the “rules of writing” we see today have nothing to do with writing correctly. Instead, they are style choices that individuals make and choose to follow in their own works. They are, in effect, guidelines for that writer, not rules for all writers.

In particular, the “no gerunds rule” is one that seems to have a limited practical application. And I’d say the same for the “no (whatever) tense rules”. They’re like the Oxford comma; if you don’t want to use them, then don’t. But there are going to be times when clarity (or word count) depends upon it.

When it comes to writing, my philosophy is always:

Choose the best word for the job.

It applies whether you use a noun, verb, gerund, adverb, adjective, dialogue tag, or a word you made up to bring your story’s world to life. Choose the best word and your readers will be so bowled over by your writing, they won’t stop to wonder whether that word qualifies as a gerund or past progressive tense.

So, what style guidelines do you prefer? What’s your writing philosophy?

For an easy read on gerunds, visit the SproutEnglish blog.

For more on verb conjugation, see Verbix.com.

Getting back in the swing of things

#amwriting #sabbatical

So, it seems that I managed to take another 8-week sabbatical this holiday season. However, unlike last year, this one was not full of family, friends, and celebrations (although we spent a lovely day at my brother’s house on Christmas). At home, we had only one tree instead of our usual five, and only two of our wreaths made it out of their boxes. While I had managed to get the cookie jars and reindeer distributed, there wasn’t a single Santa, snowman, angel, polar bear or penguin to be seen.

No, at the beginning of December, I managed to wreck my knee. Not quite sure how, as the pain wasn’t there before I stood up. I don’t remember falling, or tripping – though I have to confess I trip so often it wouldn’t register in and of itself. I am definitely not a Tuesday child full of grace, and when they make a Sunday Child, grace is the one positive attribute they just happen to leave out.

At any rate, I’ve spent the last 8 weeks using a walker or wheelchair and in pretty extreme pain. Things are finally getting better, but it’s following that old “two steps forward, one step back” rule. And since painkillers tend to make me less than lucid, I’ve spent my time reading instead of writing or blogging.

But I’ve made some real progress in my reading: my grandmother left me about 600 mystery novels published from the 50s to 70s, and I’ve chewed my way through about half of them. Some are great, some are pretty pitiful, but all of the authors were popular when the books were printed. Many of them would have a very hard time finding an audience now.

Styles have changed so much through the past 30 years or so. Leisurely descriptions are no longer in vogue. Dialogue tags, however fanciful, are frowned upon. And adverbs – heaven help the author who puts an adverb in every paragraph.

No, right now the pros tell use that the use of language must be limited to nouns, verbs and a smattering of adjectives. Description cannot be flowerly, cannot exist for the mere sake of description. Every single word must add to characterization or move the plot along.

Last year, I read several modern books, most of which came highly recommended. One of them stood out from the pack: What Boys Are Made Of by S. Hunter Nisbet. Not because the writing was flowery, or there were leisurely descriptions, or because adverbs abounded. No, because the minimalist style was so beautifully suited to the story. It would be hard for me to imagine that book being so effective if it were written in any other style.

If What Boys Are Made Of had been a romance, I’d have been very disappointed in the style and flavor of it. Yet I’ve read romances that utilize that same style; they’ve left no lasting impression on me.

One of the hardest things for writers right now, I believe, is to decide WHICH style rules to follow, WHAT style best suits our story. With so many people – professional writers and editors, textbook creators, and bloggers like you and me – putting their advice out there for everyone to see, it’s simply not possible to write a book and follow all these rules.

So get out there and be daring! Tell your love story with flowery descriptions, your hero-quest with profligate adverbs, your historical with dauntingly clear details of the scenery. Give it a go!

You’ll never know how good it can be if you don’t try it.

Because the best thing about writing in this day and age is that if you don’t like what you come up with, it’s really easy to revise.

#Writing: THE RULES vs. STYLE CHOICES

#amwriting #grammar #style #rules

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen too many articles that propound “THE RULES of Writing”. An overabundance, if you will, most of which don’t make any distinction between THE RULES and STYLE CHOICES.

THE RULES are universal. For instance:

– a sentence must have a subject and a verb;
– the subject and verb must agree;
– participles should not dangle;
– a sentence may have only one viewpoint: it cannot start out in first person and end in third;
– Etc., etc., etc.

It’s possible for a good writer to break THE RULES occasionally, but s/he must realize what s/he is doing in order for it to be effective. The universal RULES of writing can be found in any reputable GRAMMAR guide; one I like is Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL).

Anything above and beyond the universal RULES is a STYLE CHOICE:

– No adverbs? Style choice;
– No compound sentences? Style choice;
– No words over three syllables? Style choice;
– No dialogue tags but “said” and “asked”? Style choice;
– Etc., etc., etc.

STYLE CHOICES are found in “Style Guides” and are not universal rules. I, for one, would be much more apt to appreciate their advice if the guides followed these so-called “rules” in their own publications. But, almost universally, they don’t. More scholarly types than I have proven that even the ubiquitous Elements of Style by Strunk & White has broken most of the “rules” it espouses. Go ahead, try to count the adverbs in any guide that propounds “no adverbs”. Count the passive verbs in a guide that propounds “no passive verbs”. It’s almost impossible to write fiction (or to write about fiction) and follow these strictures at all times.

(Of course, there are many who get around the “no adverbs” stricture by substituting an adverbial phrase — eliminating an adverb like “tremulously” in favor of a phrase like “in a tremulous voice”. To me, that’s worse, as it adds empty words to the story.)

Adding to the confusion is that, in the history of literature, STYLE CHOICES are transitory. No one writes like Chaucer any more; few write like Faulkner or Austen. The current trend toward starkness and simplicity will no doubt be as short-lived.

Now, I’m not saying that STYLE CHOICES are wrong. On the contrary, each writer should make these choices for him- or her-self. If you want to use smaller words and shorter paragraphs, you are perfectly free to do so. But that doesn’t put writers who use longer words or longer paragraphs in the wrong. Or longer words and shorter paragraphs. Or longer paragraphs… or whatever.

Touting your own STYLE CHOICES to the world at large as “rules” is akin to attempting to convert someone to your religion, and my best advice there is “Don’t do it!”

You and your writer friends will both be happier with the outcome.

 

P.S. Can you find which of the RULES stated above is broken rule in this article? How many times has it been broken?

4 Reasons Automated Checks will Never Replace an Editor

#amwriting #amediting

There is a great benefit to automated checkers, because they’ll alert you to the possibility that you’re spelling a word incorrectly, using an inordinate number of adverbs, repeating pet phrases. But there’s more to good writing than that, and here are four of the reasons that you need a great editor.

1.) SPELL CHECKERS: No spell checker has every English word built into it, and that goes double for common foreign words and phrases (“joie de vivre” is one my checker always flags, while it lets “da nada” go when it should be “de nada”). What’s more, spell check won’t tell you if you’ve used the wrong word.

Having worked in financial services for twenty-odd years, I constantly type “form” when I mean “from”. Since “form” is an English/American word and it’s spelled correctly, it will never be flagged, and it’s up to me to catch every one. I also make a mistake when I type “to the”; as my thumbs seem to work more slowly than they should, what comes up quite a bit is “tot he”. As both “tot” and “he” are words in English, it doesn’t get flagged, regardless of the fact that it makes no sense at all!

Examples that I’ve seen others make just within the past few weeks are:

He “lied” on the floor (and probably also lied to his boss at the office!)
He held a “taught” rope (yes, a really smart rope!)
He was easy “pray” (a very religious guy.)
He “expanded” on the subject (as he expanded his belly with a big meal.)

All of these are words in English, correctly spelled, and they will not be flagged. Though that last definition might be stretched (ahem!) to include conversation, the better word is “expounded”. But spell check won’t tell you that.

2.) GRAMMAR CHECKERS: Most of these, in my experience, have severe limitations. For one thing, they’ve usually been set up to identify adverbs as all words that end in “-ly”. So whether you’re writing about a wind that comes up “suddenly” or a “cuddly” teddy bear, you’ll get a flag. But say you write about a wind that comes up “all of a sudden”: the checker won’t flag your adverbial phrase, which can be a more egregious transgression. For now, not only have you used one unnecessary word, you’ve actually used four of them.

For the record, and as I’ve stated in previous posts, I am in favor of adverbs when they’re used judiciously. “Suddenly” happens to be one that, IMHO, is seldom needed. And if you use certain checkers, they won’t flag words like “seldom” as adverbs… It doesn’t end in “ly”, so well, you’re on your own there.

3.) DICTIONARY/THESAURUS: I have a friend who writes in English, her second language. It floors me that she would even attempt to do this, as after eight semesters of French, I can barely spell “joie de vivre”. But she does a magnificent job. We had quite a discussion a few weeks ago about the phrase “common practice”. The sentence was a question: Is it a common practice? Word™ kept telling her it should be “practices”. Why? because it was seeing “practice” as a verb, and the correct declention would be “it practices”. But here, it’s being used as a noun, and Word has no way of understanding the difference.

The biggest problem with on-line dictionaries and thesauruses (thesauri? My Latin’s no better than my French!) is lack of context. Take “expand” from Item 1, above. I checked four different sources and as a primary definition got: 1. stretched, 2. swollen, 3. broadened, 4. elaborate. Without the context of American English, where “expand” is usually understood to mean “grows” or “stretches”, the writer may feel he chose the best word for the job. He was going for the more obscure meaning of “elaborate”, and the dictionary/thesaurus would never tell him any different.

Context is everything. And no on-line checker is going to give you context.

4.) STYLE: Regardless of the perceived perfection of any automated checker, it will not take your individual style into consideration. If you write a horror novel, your style is going to be much different than if you write a cozy mystery. A dystopian novel will not utilize the same language as a historical romance. Any checker that professes to be “the best for everyone” can’t live up to its hype, because it will never recognize your style as distinct from everyone else’s.

Moral of the story: Take all automated recommendations with a grain of salt, and then have your story or manuscript reviewed by an editor. It doesn’t have to be a paid professional: if you’re lucky enough to have a critique partner or someone in your writing circle that can do the job, by all means make use of their knowledge. If not, seek someone out. Someone who has an AWESOME command of both language and grammar, and who understands the complexities of style.

Slainte!

At the Intersection of #Music and #Writing

#amwriting #amediting

It occurred to me the other day that the people who propound THE RULES OF WRITING are much more vocal than those of us who do not. Since I was listening to a John McCormack CD at the time (it’s almost Paddy’s Day, you know, and I’m learning two new songs), I wondered how those proponents of THE RULES feel about music.

There are all kinds of music for all kinds of tastes: from rap to opera, from big band to show tunes to rock, rock’n’roll, rockabilly, country, pop – the list goes on and on. My tastes are probably a bit limited, as I prefer music with a simple message and a complex but repetitive melody. To wit, I like traditional folk music. Whether it’s Irish or Cowboy music, Appalachian or Gold Rush, African-American spirituals or Bob Dylan, I love folk music.

But I also like mid-century Country-Western, doo-wop, contemporary ballads, show tunes and some classical pieces (though I prefer a single instrument to an orchestral arrangement).

It seems to me that almost everyone enjoys more than one kind of music. Just because you like rap doesn’t mean you can’t like show tunes. People who like swing might also savor classical music.

So what if I said that everyone should like Irish folk music and listen to nothing else? If I did, you’d laugh out loud, wouldn’t you? Give me the brush-off, a raspberry or even an inelegant gesture.

You wouldn’t accept anyone at all telling you what kind of music you have to listen to and enjoy.

Why is it then, that all writers are supposed to imitate one author? Why is only one author held up as the ultimate standard for writing well?

And why, if only one author qualifies for such a high honor – why is it not Shakespeare?

 

coffee & computer - Pexels

Photo courtesy of Pexel

Nope. It’s Hemingway. The Heming-way is the way we must write now. We must eschew adverbs, delete gerunds, avoid passive voice, reduce adjectives and write shorter sentences.

In addition, we must only use “said/ask/whispered” for dialogue tags (or use none at all), simplify our punctuation, and make our paragraphs shorter.

There’s even an app now called “Hemingway Editor © ”. It encourages shorter, simpler words and reports a “good” score as 6th grade reading comprehension level. That might be great for 6th graders, but really? The first sentence of this post is 27 words long and the app considered it “too complex” and too hard to read. The second sentence, it considered “very hard” to read. But I’d bet real money that you had no trouble understanding either of them.

Previous generations used reading as a way to increase their knowledge of words and language. Do we really want to encourage people to limit their vocabulary and comprehension? Do we really want to play to the lowest acceptable level of literacy?

It makes no sense to me.

If you were to catalog the classic literature of the early 20th century, Hemingway is only one of many authors you’d find on the list. Fitzgerald, Wolfe, Steinbeck, Joyce, Faulkner – all contempories of Hemingway, all hugely popular in their lifetimes. All still have a following today. And all have unique writing styles.

The Sound and the Fury – was there ever a better depiction of a Southern aristrocratic family’s dissolution?* Faulkner employed a number of narrative techniques, including omniscient POV and stream of consciousness. Why do THE RULES hawkers disavow him?

Look Homeward, Angel is my favorite book, hands down. Thomas Wolfe gives us an intimate look into the heart and soul of a poor, socially awkward boy with a miserly mother and an alcoholic father.** The writing is lyrical, melodic, majestic in its reach. The emotional scope of the novel is incomparable. Again, THE RULES hawkers decry.

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce manages to blend the most appealing aspects of the two works noted above. And the hawkers tear out their hair and scream “No! NO! NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!”

Why?

I’ve heard from several sources that contemporary readers prefer a style like Hemingway’s. Do they? Or have they just become so inundated with it that they don’t realize they have a choice?

We as writers have a choice. We are free to choose Hemingway – if that’s what we want. But I think it’s equally important to realize that choosing “other” is not a cardinal sin. We have an obligation – yes, an obligation – to create what is in us, regardless of THE RULES.

I don’t discount or disparage Hemingway’s talents at all. But I do object to them being held up as the gold standard. No single author deserves that, not even Shakespeare.

Believe me, if I could write like Thomas Wolfe I would.

So tell me, what kind of music do you enjoy? Does it translate to what you enjoy reading? or to the way you write?

 

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*By the way, Hemingway Editor doesn’t think you can understand the first sentence in this paragraph, either.

**Per Hemingway Editor, this sentence is too long for you to understand, and “miserly” was identified as an adverb. Oy vez!