4 Writing “Rules” That Aren’t.

Courtesy of kristja

The internet is rife with “This is how to write” articles, and they’re all useful, if you know how to use them.

The problem is that they are presented as lists of hard-and-fast rules, and the most important rule of any expressive craft is that there are no hard-and-fast rules. Like the Pirate Code, writing rules must be more like guidelines, especially now that large publishing houses are retreating from the forefront of the industry and readers are getting to decide what has a chance to sell.

1) Passive Voice

Never, ever, ever use passive voice, right? It makes your writing drag. The reader can find it confusing. It serves no purpose.

Wrong. Very wrong. Language evolves much  more quickly and efficiently than life, and purposeless features don’t stick around long. If passive voice wasn’t needed, it wouldn’t exist. The truth is that the passive voice has a very specific function: it calls attention to the object of the action. It tells you which player is important, because the player doing something isn’t always the important one. In storytelling, it can also add an element of suspense, as it makes you wait to find out who is performing the action.

Gina was murdered!

This is how you would usually hear this kind of sentence in conversation. It’s obvious that we know who Gina is, possibly care about her, and she is who we’re talking about. Need more information?

Paul murdered Gina!

Someone else has taken over the sentence. We’re not talking about Gina anymore; we’re talking about Paul. If we want the attention on Paul, that’s well and good, but if we’re still talking about Gina, this is more likely to confuse the reader than passive voice.

Gina was murdered… by Paul!

There we go. Best of both worlds. Now Gina is our focus, and we know whodunit. As an added bonus, we have to wait a full four words and an ellipsis to find out whodunit, building the tension that much further.

2) Adverbs

Stay away from adverbs. They drag down your verbs. Always pick a verb that says what you want it to say without any further modification. In fact, search your document for “-ly” and delete every instance you find.


Like the passive voice, adverbs wouldn’t exist if the language didn’t need them. Does every verb need a modifier? Absolutely not. But to read some of these advice columns, you could be excused for believing that even one adverb can ruin your novel. So what’s the limit? One per page? One per chapter? If you’ve got an adverb following every single instance of the word “said,” you’ve probably got a problem, but you can laugh merrily or wickedly or bitterly or ruefully, and there simply isn’t a variation of “to laugh” for each of those. Personally, I hate the word “chortle.” Laughing gaily is better than chortling.

That is to say, you know what you’re trying to convey. If hunting for a verb to convey it takes too long, or if you find one, but it sounds stupid, just use the damn adverb.

3) Action and Description

Action, action, action! No one wants to be bombarded with descriptions or characters’ thoughts. More verbs, simpler verbs. If you have to choose between advancing the plot and developing the scene, choose the plot. Always.

Actually, no. Researchers at Stony Brook University found a positive correlation between amount of descriptive language in a novel and that novel’s success. (Yes, that’s the Daily Mail, but it’s a good summary of the study that was conducted.) Readers want to see the character and the scene. The human brain does not interact with the world as a long string of actions; it takes in details, snapshots. It sees everything in the room, decides which things are important, and takes note of those. That becomes the author’s job, to include everything important and leave out the rest. Chekhov’s gun be damned, if there is a gun on the wall, and it makes a character nervous, it has served its purpose. It need never be mentioned again, because establishing the atmosphere is valid.

Do I think a modern Moby Dick would do very well on Amazon? Pages and pages of admiring the sea? No, not really. But look at Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier; it wouldn’t be nearly as eerie without the attention paid to the house. The house is, to some extent, the point of the book, almost a character in its own right, and it needs those adjectives. Better yet, look at Twilight. Would Twilight have done nearly as well if we didn’t all know poor Edward from every angle in excruciating detail? Probably not. It did nothing to advance the plot, but it was necessary to make the point Meyer wanted to make.

4) Show, Don’t Tell

First of all, this piece of advice flies around writing forums like cat gifs on Facebook, and I dare you, the next time it’s thrown at you, to ask the suggester to give you an example specific to your writing. The vast majority of people sneezing “Show, don’t tell” at you have no idea what it means. This is mostly because it doesn’t really mean anything. They might offer up that old “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass” bit, but that doesn’t really mean anything, either.

“Show, don’t tell” is abstract, and not universally applicable. Personally, I think it applies to prologues and the like; I prefer background information to be embedded in conversation or brief flashbacks, because it’s boring to have a huge history lesson dumped on you at the beginning. But then you have stories that just don’t make sense without some telling. Consider Galadriel’s voiceover at the beginning of the Fellowship of the Ring film. It was brief, to the point, and elegantly delivered, but it was undeniably telling. And that was fine.

Then you have emotion. I get a lot of “Show, don’t tell” in response to talking about emotions. In some cases, I understand this.

His pulse pounded furiously in his ears sounds a lot better than He was furious. (Hey, adverbs!)

But if you’re writing in first person, which is the narrator more likely to give you? If I’m furious, I’m more likely to scream one well-chosen word than “MY PULSE IS POUNDING FURIOUSLY IN MY EARS.” Even remembering a moment of fury, “I was furious” sounds much more natural, because rage interferes with observation. If you’re focused on your emotion, you probably have no idea what your pulse is doing.

In Summary:

Use your own good judgement. You know what you’re trying to say. If you’ve done your homework, and you know the purpose behind the language, you can decide for yourself what kind of language to use. Artificial restrictions are just that – artificial and restricting. Read the advice, consider it carefully, and accept or reject it as you think necessary. Give your work to someone you trust to respect both your vision and your integrity, someone who will point out specific problems and give you specific advice on how to fix them, not make blanket statements.

Am I saying to write clunky crap and listen to no one but yourself? Of course not. I’m saying know your craft, know your idea, and know your language. Don’t overdo it with the description, the adverbs, the passive voice, the telling. Don’t weigh down your writing. But these are tools, not taboos. Don’t be afraid to use them when you need them.

BONUS) Draft, Revise, Draft, Revise, Draft, Revise, Draft, Revise, Draft, Revise ad nauseam

Augh. No. As much as I admire people who can sit down and pump out a first draft in its entirety, then sit down and write the damn thing again, I can’t. And a lot of other people can’t, either. This is not the only way.

You know yourself best. You know how your brain functions. Me, I get stuck. I can’t get the next sentence out, and no amount of Butt In Chair Hands On Keyboard will fix that. My options are getting up and going to do something else or editing. I choose editing. It is not a sin to edit an incomplete draft. For me, going back and editing helps get me back into the flow, remember where I was going next, renew my feel for my own language. It takes longer for me to write the end, but I don’t think it really takes any longer to build a finished product.


4 thoughts on “4 Writing “Rules” That Aren’t.

  1. It’s good to see this article for the Pirate Code analogy if nothing else. I’ll freely admit that I probably use adverbs–particlarly “ly” adverbs–more often than I should, but the idea of just getting rid of all of them just seems like throwing away a tool. You’re right: if they didn’t have a use, they wouldn’t still be around.

    The only point here I disagree with at all is “Show, don’t Tell,” and that’s just because I think it’s vague enough to be considered a guideline already. You can’t demand that people “never tell” in the same way that you can demand they never use passive voice. Mostly I just find it’s handy advice to offer while asking “Do you realise you just slipped into present tense to explain how dragon magic works?”

    • Caveat: Language does change, and “ly” adverbs are on the decline in American English. I think in another fifty years or so, they’ll just sound pretentious. (This is when I flee to England. 😉 )

      You’d be surprised. I always took “Show, don’t Tell” as a guideline, but I’ve had people present it to me as a rule. The example I gave was a real suggestion thrown at me by someone whose own writing contained nary a direct statement. There are those who take it to outrageous extremes and just end up beating around the bush in every sentence. I’ve read a full page detailing the physical symptoms of panic that really could have been condensed to “They were running out of time.” Very irritating.

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