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Jan 27

Writing Rules

A graphic I recently saw on Pintrest called “Said is Dead” made me want to ::headdesk::. Now, to be fair, it’s from a fourth-grade teacher’s blog, but seems to have found its way onto writing boards. Don’t even ask me how you can smirk or giggle and speak at the same time.

“Nothing screams ‘amateur’ like this kind of writing,” I sneered loftily.

Ahem. Yes. Anyway, this got me to thinking about writing rules.

Back in the bad old days of querying agents and publishers in the desperate hope of one day putting our books in readers’ hands, writers were bombarded with Writing Rules: Don’t use passive verbs (was, is, are). Don’t use gerunds (-ing words). Don’t use adverbs. Don’t overuse italics, em-dashes, ellipses. Show, don’t tell. Don’t use plot devices. And on, and on.

As a writer, I had to buy into these edicts to have any chance of getting past the great and terrible gatekeepers. I believed if someone didn’t follow the rules, they were a Bad Writer.

Well… maybe. Or maybe not.

I’ll admit it. I’m of the opinion that if you want to be a writer, you’d better have an above-average grasp of the language– grammar, vocabulary, mechanics. These are the tools of the trade, and if you can’t or don’t want to spend the time mastering them, then maybe you should find another medium through which to tell your stories.

But that’s my opinion. Observation shows me that a lot of readers don’t feel the same. Authors can misuse words, mangle sentences, scatter typos like tumbleweeds on a windy day and people still buy and love their books.

Once, that outraged me. But thinking back on books I’ve loved, I’ve come to realize that so many writing “rules” are arbitrary, nothing but personal preference. Preferences, I strongly suspect, that started with agents and editors, then morphed into a means to winnow their mountains of submitted manuscripts.

“This writer didn’t start with a good hook,” the agency intern said, tossing another manuscript into the recycling bin.

Take, for example, the rule “show, don’t tell.” Read books from the 19th century, even the first half of the 20th. Stories were told. The author sometimes even addressed you directly, dear reader. Yes, it often makes the story less visceral. But Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice are still read and loved today. In fact, I think that’s the appeal of first-person (“I”) stories. It’s like you’re listening to someone tell a story, complete with explanations, commentary and even occasional backtracking. So a close point of view is just someone’s personal preference– the kind of storytelling that person likes. Other readers enjoy other styles of storytelling.

I can’t say I’ll abandon all the writing rules. Many of them, to my ear, make for good writing. But it’s nice not to straitjacketed by them, to be able to let my writing voice be what it is. Of course, my books won’t speak to all readers. But now they’re free to find those readers they do speak to.

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