Tuesday, 15 December 2015

How Writing Rules Can Sometimes do Bad Things to Good People

A week or so ago, I found a thread posted in the Writing Forum of an online writing community I've been a member of for a while. Its title was "Words You Hate/Won't Use."

It started off innocently enough. The Original Poster listed 'gingerly,' 'albeit' and 'fastly' among her no-no words. Others added 'righter,' '-ish' words (like 'tallish' and 'brownish') and the godawful 'moist' (I can totally get behind that one.) There were smatterings of debate as to the dictionary-defined validity of some of the words offered ('fastly' was contested for a good few pages of the thread.)

My own, personal 'oh-hell-no'-word is actually a phrase - and it's entirely my own fault that I hate it because I was the one who over-used and abused it in a novel I started about ten years ago, that limped to about Chapter Five before I shuffled it quietly into the Novel Graveyard on my hard drive. I had two male characters who appeared to have only one way to express troubling emotions, and that was to "rake his hands through his hair." They were both at it, every time things got a bit tense for them, and after seeing that action so many goddamn times in one of my read-back sessions I wanted give them both a buzz-cut and staple-gun their hands into their pockets. This has had a hangover effect on my writing ever since; I can't use it in any of my stories now without feeling a little bit sick in my mouth. (I think I may have one variation of it in Redemption at the moment - or I may have already replaced it with something else and then dissociated from the whole traumatic experience. If it is still there, trust me, it's living on borrowed time...)

So far so conversational. But then things started to get a bit hardcore. Words like 'suddenly' and 'very' came up, along with 'then,' 'got,' 'almost' and 'just.' Not just once, but several times, with many others agreeing with those who put them forward. And adverbs in general, of course - and while we're at it let's not forget the dysfunctional families of 'was' and 'to be' (beGONE, evil Passive Verbs!)

The same little add-on phrases starting creeping in too - you know the kind of thing I'm talking about. 'Using this word in your writing just screams 'amateur'...' 'It's an example of lazy writing on the author's part - there's always a better/stronger word you can use...' And of course the ever-so-humblebrag 'I've made a point of eliminating every instance of that word from my writing now, and if anything it makes my writing stronger.'

Reeeeeaaaalllly? You've eliminated every instance of words like 'very,' 'then' and 'got,' have you? Well, aren't you the Star Pupil of your Fiction Writing 101 Class?

I'm sorry if that sounds snarky... well no, perhaps 'sorry' is the wrong word. Perhaps what I really mean is "I have no wish to upset or offend you, but my brain is rejecting what you just said so hard that this response is projectile-vomiting from my speech-hole faster than anything more polite and less sincere." Yeah, that sounds more me, I'm going with that, thanks.

Pick up a book by any famous-to-insanely-famous author - go on, any book you like. Pick one by your favourite author if you like. It's okay, I'll wait for you until you get back.

Done it? Good.

Now, do you notice a total absence of adverbs, so-called 'passive verbs' and words like 'very,' 'got' and 'then' in their work? To the point where they clearly made it their mission to weed them out like the canker-sore Violations of Good Writing Rules they truly are? Nope, didn't think so. And yet those authors seem to have done okay for themselves - even garnered themselves a bit of respect, you might say.

Perhaps those Fiction Writing Rules hadn't been hewn in fire onto their stone tablets back then - or said authors simply never got around to engraving them on their souls. How lucky all us millennium-generation writers are then, living in a webby-connected world that guarantees we'll never miss the chance to hear them trumpeted loud and long - and as such, be saved from committing such a heinous crime as a wanton adverb to the page...

Yes, my brain is projectile-vomiting again - I should probably calm down now ... *deep breaths, thinking happy thoughts...*

But here's what's winding me up about the Writing Police; how must fledgling writers, new to the craft and eager to stretch their creative wings, feel when they read this kind of twaddle? When basic words like 'very' and 'then' - words we all grew up with and use in our speech every day of our lives - are suddenly signposts to the writing equivalent of a minus score on an IQ test? Veterans don't realise just how damn scary this zero-tolerance attitude can be to the padawan writers. No matter where we are on the road to getting our work in front of readers, we're all in this together, aren't we? We should be helping each other, not finding petty little ways to make it even harder for new members to join the Proper Authors' Club.

Of course when it comes to writing there are things that work and things that don't. Yes, a lot of the writing rules - even this one we're discussing now - were invented for a reason, and being at least aware of them and why they're worth knowing will help you become a better writer. And obviously the staples like spelling, punctuation and grammar are important, because readers need to understand what they're reading.

But these are the technical skills of writing, and there's more to a great story than making sure the i's are dotted and t's are crossed. Even Stephen King, in his book On Writing, follows up his lecture on shunning adverbs with the cheerful admission that he doesn't always follow that rule himself. Why? Because godammit, sometimes that dirty old adverb adds the right pinch of spice to your prose, to the point where it would be more wrong not to put it in.

Getting perfect tens for your technical skills in writing will not guarantee a great story because story is not just science; it's an art. And when you sacrifice your art on the altar of technical perfection, all you end up with is a dead chicken. We don't learn the rules of great writing to slavishly live by them; we learn them to understand when, why and how it's okay to break them.

Readers who aren't writers don't invest huge chunks of their time learning all the Rules of Great Writing, because most of them aren't bothered about such stuff. Unlike fellow writers, they don't read books to critique them; they read them to be entertained. And sometimes, seasoned writers forget that in their quest to define what 'quality fiction' really is.

So, to all you writers-in-training out there, don't let yourselves be intimidated by The Rules - or the folks who sigh and tut at you when you 'break' them. It doesn't mean you're a bad writer and there's no hope for you, and it definitely doesn't mean you should give up on your dreams. You don't have to ban every adverb, talk exclusively in Active Voice for every single sentence or slavishly follow any jackbooted clusterbag of Thou Shalt Nots. Yoda said "Do or do not. There is no try." For writing, I would amend that to "You learn much more by doing than you ever will trying not to do."

Just keep doing what you do, for as long as you love doing it. And trust that, the more you do it, the better you'll become at knowing when you can improve your work by following those pesky rules - or equally, by not following them. Your choice. Your story.

Your rules.

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