Monday, March 21, 2011

Follow the Rules. Really?

We all learned the rules when we were growing up. Look both ways before you cross the street. Eat your vegetables. Be polite. We all tried - most of the time. Sure, we weaved off the straight and narrow every once and a while, but hey, that's what adventures were all about.

Every new writer learns the rules as well. Show don't tell. Avoid using the passive voice like the plague and cliches are bad. Adverbs are evil. Don't let your sentences run on, but don't let them be too short. Always use 'said' as your dialogue tag.

There are literally hundreds of these rules out there and if I was a new writer, I'd be petrified as well as confused because many of these rules contradict each other. For every time I've seen 'adverbs are evil', I've also seen 'adverbs are our best friends'. I understand run on sentences can be annoying, but if you've a character who is long-winded it can follow that they speak in run on sentences. It happens. Just like short sentences.

When I'm editing I keep a sharp eye out for spelling and grammatical errors (of course) but I'm more concerned about focusing the picture as sharply (oops, an 'ly' word) as possible. If a character is furious, he's going to yell what's on his mind; just as he's going to whisper an endearment. Each character speaks in his/her own rhythm regardless of sentence length (within reason). Some characters like to show off their knowledge and quote works of literature, while for some characters their actions speak louder than their words.

Although each of us has to find our own way on the writing path, I've discovered through pain, error and frustration that that path isn't as narrow as you might think. Feel free to veer off it from time to time. Freedom can be the first step to some wonderful adventures.


  1. Sometimes an excellent voice doesn't follow the rules. It becomes a case of what must be done to make sense and flow. 'Rules" are only guidelines after all.

  2. Good advice, and I agree with Mary. I have read some really good books that broke many of these rules. I wish we could just always think of them as guidelines, and when I do editing workshops I stress to the participants that these are only guides, not edicts written in stone.

  3. I always find fun stuff when I veer off the path :)

  4. Elspeth - Oh, you are so right! Or write. Or whatever. The fact is, the story is so much more important than whether or not you've used the passive voice. It's a lot more important than whether you've allowed a character to whisper, giggle, sing or say something. Sometimes, the character has to whisper, giggle or sing something for the story to be a good one. The best restaurants are not usually along the highway. They are on the turn-off roads...

  5. Mary; I agree, it is better to think of them as guidelines rather than rules. But for that new writer, all those lists say 'rules', which is rather frightening.

    Maryann; I'm so glad you call them guidelines in your workshops! What a relief that must be to the participants.

    Carol; It's true; that's where the fun stuff usually resides. It just takes a bit of bravery to go looking for it.

    Terry; That IS the most important thing, isn't it? I think it's easy for new writers to get stuck worrying about 'how to write' instead of just writing. It takes self-trust. That's not in everyone's arsenal.

    Margot; Yes! It's the story that counts! But you have to have enough belief in your abilities to trust you know what you're doing - or that you're writing a story worth telling. I think that's easier said than done; especially if you're just starting out.

  6. ah, yes. Thank you for giving us permission to forgo the stifling rules every once in a while, sometimes I forget :)

  7. Shewriting; You don't need anyone to give you permission; remember the Nike motto: Just Do It!


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