Friday, March 11, 2016

The Elusive Rules of Writing


From reading this blog, you might be under the impression that I don't have a particularly favorable opinion on articles of writing advice. However, some of these articles are actually decent and/or helpful (although they can be distracting from actually writing). Many have wonderful lessons to impart. But some also have incredibly narrow-minded and condescending advice, too. And perhaps that’s why whenever I read a particularly annoying one, I want to go rant somewhere.

Oh, you lucky readers. What else do I have a blog for? ;)

The fact is, I don’t enjoy strangers telling me what to do (This isn't always a good thing, although it does mean I'm not likely to blindly follow internet advice). I read a lot, both current fiction and classic fiction. And one thing I find is that a lot of my issues or annoyances in modern novels are the very things that many writing blogs and articles are telling me I should do. And if there is one piece of writing advice that I do and always have agreed with it's this: write the book you want to read. And sometimes, that means breaking a few rules.

“Don’t use italics” (I love italics. Blame Montgomery. But I do agree you can go overboard with it.)
“Only use the word ‘said’” (Sure, most of the time. But it is okay to shake it up now and then. And despite that several writers have celebrated the use of “said” after exclamation points, it is one of my number one pet peeves and tends to jolt me out of the story. “Yelled” or “shouted” in those instances work better for me. The same with "said" after a question mark. My brain is automatically wired for "asked.")
“This is only a mistake of inexperienced writers…” (*proceeds to name five stunning, classic authors who have done the very thing to marvelous effect*)
“Prologues are dead” (Read previous post here.)
“Don’t use a “pretentious” vocabulary.” (Read this post for my views on the subject)
“Cut down description; only use the bare essentials to make your point.” (Yes, everything you write should be purposeful, but not all of us like minimalist writing. Give me some meat, please.)

             Now I can't say that this post itself is writing advice...but I can't say that it's not, either. I tend to feel a little awkward giving advice, because I know I'm just as flawed as the rest of the world, and who am I to presume to teach anyone? On the other hand, if we all did that there would be no teachers at all, period. Overall, this post is just my rambled thoughts on the subject, and if the reader can garner some wisdom or advice from it, then bravo! I will feel that this post wasn't a total waste of time.

There have been some writing articles that have helped me with my writing, exposing clich├ęs or pitfalls that I hadn’t realized I’d fallen into. There are good, worthwhile articles on writing. I want to walk around with this sentiment on a neon sign in case that anyone thinks I'm against writing advice articles on principle. But there are also many articles that make me want to roll my eyes—especially those telling me that authors need to write fiction that will capture the attention of “today’s audience” with their “short attention spans.”


I’m sorry, I refuse to do that. Maybe if today’s literature was better, it would have a positive effect on reader’s twitter-length attention spans. If an article begins with this statement, there's a 95% chance I'm going to be biased against whatever else they are going to say.

            Many of these currently popular "rules" center around making the reader forget that they are actually, you know, reading. Don't use italics; it will take them out of the story. (And yes, I am purposefully throwing out bunches of italics in this post. I'm rebellious that way) Don't use lots of description: get to the punch. Excitement after excitement has to come rolling through in a fast-paced barrage because readers can't be expected to actually stick with a book if it gets "boring" for even a moment or two.

            It comes down to making books seem as close to movies as possible. This might possibly explain why whenever I read a lot of current YA I think, this would work better as a movie than a book. Don't misunderstand me: I want readers to get lost in my story. I want them to get sucked in. But reading is in many ways a completely different experience than watching a movie, and I don't want my book to read like a script, which is something I think a lot of modern books attempt to do. I don't want to "trick" readers into thinking they're simply watching a movie in their heads. I want them to be able to picture and imagine the scenes in a novel, but I also want them to get sucked in by the language I use to do so.


            That's not to say there are some distracting issues that all authors and readers have to deal with (As I mentioned earlier, using "said" after after an obviously yelled exclamation point always bugs me) and some people are bothered by certain things more than others. There are legitimate guidelines that writers should follow (such as proper grammar or good character development) and some writers are better at breaking these “rules” than others. And short attention spans aside, I know people are busy, and books should be worthwhile. No one wants to finish a novel and think, gee, I just wasted the last four hours of my life. I should have spent that time watching Monk reruns on Netflix. A part of that, I think, is knowing when one is purposefully breaking the rules. Whenever these advice-givers mention the previously expressed examples as signs of juvenile or inexperienced writing, they are not always wrong. Many times if an author is unaware that they are doing these things, they do them badly. Thus, bad writing.

            When it comes to writing advice, I've noticed that if the article/blog is focused more on selling books to publishers or agents, marketing, or making them appeal to the "general market," I'm more likely to disagree with its advice. On the other hand, if the article is simply about writing to the best of one's ability or is specialized to a certain genre or purpose, it's usually much more helpful.

            Also, every story is different, and every story has different needs. Not all stories have the same purpose or theme, and all words, techniques, and writing choices should be used to further those goals in the best and most efficient way possible.

            But this post itself is not infallible; it is only my opinion. And that's what writing articles are, in general: opinions. People have different tastes, and while I do think there is such a thing as universally "bad" writing in the matter for storytelling, there isn't one right way to write a book. There are many "right" ways to craft a story. Of course, there are also a lot of ways to mess up and write a bad one, too. Amazingly, though, I've found that there's a lot less variety in bad writing. Most good books are great in original or imaginative ways. Most bad books, on the other hand, are woefully similar. 

            My personal philosophy of writing is to be as truthful and as purposeful in your story as you can. You can break as many rules in your writing as you want, but only if you have a reason for doing so. And not everyone will like it, either. There are some people who are bothered by the very things I enjoy in books, and that's okay. But there are also readers who enjoy the same things I do- and doesn't it make much more sense for me to be writing for them, rather than writing something I don't like just to hook readers with different tastes?

Well, to end with some writing advice that I do agree with...


So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best as you can.

I think I might go with Mr. Gaiman on this one.


Naomi Bennet said...


Because I agree completely. :-) Especially this rule, "Cut down description; only use the bare essentials to make your point" has always annoyed me, because I like some meat and some 'unnecessary' description.
(So mant YA books now are written to become movies. Haha.)

I love what you said about every story requiring different needs. It's so true. :-) I loved this post, Hayden + agree 100%. :-)

~ Naomi

Natalie said...

Oh, I love this!!!
I agree with pretty much everything you said-especially about italics, the word "said" (and "asked"!), and about description. Books that envelope me in beautiful description and words are much more likely to become my favorite than one that is so to-the-point. Those kind of books bore me. They feel dry and lacking. Of course, I think description can be overdone, but when it's woven into the "important" parts of the story it's just stunning.

I love the list of "rules" at the end. :)

Jillian said...

I agree with this! And I also feel awkward offering writing advice, because what if something I say squashes a gem? And yet, I agree teachers are an enormous asset. I have no idea if I'm qualified, though. Anyway, I love this, and love those Gaiman rules. :)

Hamlette said...

Yes and yes and yes.

RockandMinerals4Him said...


Shieldmaiden of Rohan said...

I tagged you!

Lady Nefertankh said...

Oh hello *waves* I am just a person who found your blog via a friend of a friend of a friend ages ago. This is my first comment though I've been reading your lovely blog for a while!

You know what I think is probably most funny? That some of these "rules" are probably reacting to other rules! Like the one about "said". When I started writing more seriously (at 12) I remember a lot of books would advise "don't use said after every sentence, vary it, use murmured, bellowed, gasped, hollered..." Just a few years later, I start seeing the opposite! The truth is somewhere in between! Same thing for show don't tell (show if it's something important enough you want the reader to "live through" along with the character, summarize if it's just information you need to move the plot forward), or yes description, italics and everything else.

I remember telling a friend a while ago that "These authors don’t write from life, they write from television." It's as though they set out to write a screenplay first, a novel second. Whether this is due to more writers watching television than 50-100 years ago, or more of their readers, I'm not sure!

What's ironic too, is that many do seem to have the attitude of "Gosh, teens have short attention spans, better grab 'em right away!" yet, as an article I read recently pointed out, we're seeing a booming increase in trilogies, especially for teens, while (published)short stories are rarer than they've been in decades!

I really think too, that some things are just a matter of personal taste or choice. Just because someone doesn't like a writer's style doesn't make it wrong. To another person, that same writer might be one of the greatest of all time! Thus I agree with both W Somerset Maugham and Neil Gaiman, nobody knows the true rules to writing, and the most important thing is probably just to start writing, and then try to finish what you write.

Though I've never really gotten into the books written by either Gaiman or Maughum, but the movies they inspired were good! ;)

E.F.B. said...



That is all I have to say. Carry on. :)

Jenelle Leanne said...

Amen to everything in this post!

I love italics. And prologues. And correct use of tags. And description (not overboard description like Charles Dickens, of course, but a goodly amount that allows me to sink my teeth into the story). And pretentious vocabulary!! I love a story that stretches my knowledge of words.

Ah. Happy sigh.

It's good to know I'm not the only one.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...