The So-Called Rules of Writing

Every so often, a writer steps out of the woodwork and proclaims to have it all figured out. This pretentious individual then declares themselves to be a master of the English language, and posts an article on the Internet outlining the rules of writing according to them. I have read many variations of these rules, but they all share one common trait: The author is never well-known.

So, am I saying that an author must be famous to have valid advice? Not at all. But, let me phrase it another way: Would you follow the rules of parenting from a person that once babysat?

My point is this: I object to the notion that anyone has the authority to establish the rules of writing. I do believe that an experienced writer can offer advice and share guidelines to help you color within the lines, but there isn’t an exact formula to follow. Or at least there shouldn’t be. The best part of being a writer is developing your style and making your signature recognizable to the reader. What fun would reading be if all of our books sounded exactly the same? The covers would all look different, but on the inside, just pages of passed down textbook without any personality or flair.

In saying all of this, let me make it clear that I do understand the difference between good and bad writing. Not everyone can flow sentences together in a seamless fashion, but I don’t begrudge anyone for trying. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, is it not? I’ve seen books get rave reviews that I thought were terrible, and I’ve read critically panned books that I thought were great. The experience depends entirely on the reader.

Writers and editors alike all regurgitate the same rhetoric that gets passed around as the gold standard. As a writer, do I follow the “rules?” I suppose I do for the most part, but I also know when it’s okay to stray from them. Let’s examine some of the most popular rules:

Use Strong Verbs to Replace Adverbs – I agree that most adverbs can be eliminated without changing the meaning of the sentence, but I say if an adverb feels right, go ahead and use it. Who cares? Would you really deny use of an adverb because one out of every ten readers is going to complain about it? Don’t overdo it, but sure, an adverb doesn’t have to be a plague. Some adverbs aren’t as easily replaceable and fit the sentence. Do I use adverbs? Yes, but I try to use them sparingly (get it?).

Use Strong Nouns to Replace Adjectives – You have got to be effing kidding me! While we’re at it, let’s use binary code to replace nouns, and clicks and whistles to replace weak pronouns. Look, the English language is vast and beautiful. Why are writers always developing rules to reduce its size? Must we continue to chip away at it until there’s nothing left to use?

Show, Don’t Tell – I agree, though, I also think there needs to be a limit as to how much you should show. I recently read a book where the author was still describing the environment after ten pages of text. I was bored to tears. At some point, you need to move along with the story. If you’ve already shown me the most important things in a scene, I’ll give you a pass if you tell me the rest.

The list goes and on, and if you’re a writer, you’ve undoubtedly heard them all.

In today’s day and age, there are countless entertainment options competing with books that offer instant gratification. Let’s face facts, authors: Between Lady GaGa records, DVR’d episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and Nintendos, we’re fighting a losing battle against the ever-decreasing attention span of our younger generation. I don’t know about you, but that scares the living shit out of me.

You want a rule of writing? How about this: Write the way everyday people speak. If you’ve ever said something and had a friend say, “Um, okay, Professor,” then you don’t know your audience (Don’t even get me started on the annoying subculture of Twitter’s “grammar police”). I believe in my heart of hearts that more people do want to read, but when they’re smacked in the face with five dollar words and obscure references to sixteenth century playwrights on the very first page, it discourages them from picking up books. As writers, we need to keep in mind that not everyone is fortunate enough to go to college, but that doesn’t make them any less deserving of entertainment.

I know this blog may sound like blasphemy, but I’m not calling for a “dumbing down” of the literary arts. I’m merely saying that if you’re a well-educated English major, good for you. You should be applauded. However, being a pretentious jackass is going to limit your reach as an author.

Write the stories that you want to write, just don’t tell me how to write mine. If you don’t like it, don’t read it.


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