Saturday, 15 October 2016


Moses: the world's first Beta-Reader.
Life is full of rules. There are the big rules, made by leaders of countries that everyone has to follow or risk spending time in a small room with bars on the windows.There are medium-size rules that will get you banned, blocked or otherwise excluded from venues or activities if you break them. And, right at the bottom, there are the smaller rules - the ones you can do waggly finger-quotes around if you're that way inclined, since breaking them will earn you not much more than some side-eye and a few 'unfriend'-ings on FaceBook.

This is because us humans love rules. It's how we make sense of the world and sort everybody out into their respective tribes. You can't build an IKEA wardrobe without instructions, (sometimes even with them) and rules serve as the instruction manual to the IKEA wardrobe that is our lives. Hammer all those wooden pages in before you squish the two bits together, make sure you put those weird locking-nut things in the right way up and don't, for the love of God, lose the Allen Key, and you'll end up with exactly what you were intending to end up with. Mostly.

So it's hardly surprising that even writers - those free-thinking, creating-worlds-and-people-out-of-thin-air dreamers - decided that the craft of writing needed rules as well. Yes of course everything we create doesn't actually exist outside the pages of our work, so we are in effect trying to enforce discipline on pretend things - but even the intangible must be pinned down and categorised, dammit! We must know what tribe it belongs to, so we can decide if it's friend or foe to our own tribe - because only then can we figure out whether we should embrace it like a brother or chase its arse out of our village with the sharp end of our pitchforks.

And so the Writing Rules were born, and have been with us ever since. If you've been writing for any length of time, you'll probably know a lot of them already. Many are very good, and will most definitely help you to become a better writer. But this is why there are a certain number that keep on coming up, time after time, shouted throughout the writing community as if they were the sacred words of the God of Stories himself.

I'm going to say some terms and phrases now, well-known amongst writers, and see how many of them give you that inner urge to roll your eyes and sigh. Ready? Here we go then:

Passive Voice. Filtering. Show, don't tell. Adverbs.

Are you groaning yet? Sorry about that. I picked these in particular because they're the ones writers seem to get the most froth-mouthed evangelistic about. Somehow, these aren't just rules - they're RUUUUULLLLLEEEESSSS! As in, non-negotiable - you either toe the line on this or you forfeit the right to think of yourself as a proper writer.

Think I'm exaggerating? On many writing community forums you can regularly find long, ranty threads on the above four Rules. Just this week I saw one entitled '17 Words Good Writers Should Never Use' - that's NEVER, as in EVER, AT ALL. The Poster of this thread was serious, with no hint of irony in his message, and vigorously defended his point of view, as did a few others who replied to it. All fine and dandy - until you actually look at some of the words on that list of those Good Writers should 'never' use. Words like 'right,' 'then,' 'while,' and - I'm not making this up - 'was.'

That last one is particularly ridiculous. Anyone who seriously believes they will improve their writing by eliminating every instance of the word 'was' clearly does not understand how English works. You could certainly do it - but the verbal acrobatics you'd sometimes have to employ to still say what you want to say would leave your prose unreadable. Words don't stick around in a language for centuries if they're no use to people, and 'was' has been around for a bloody long time already.

The whole hate campaign against 'was' comes from the both the Passive Voice Rule and the Show, Don't Tell Rule - and there is some merit in the reasoning. Making the subject of the sentence the active element (doing the thing) rather than the passive (the thing is being done by them) does make that sentence more dynamic and help the reader to 'feel' the story more. The same principle applies when a subject performs an action that indicates an emotion (i.e. showing, with body language) than simply saying that subject 'was something' (i.e. 'Jane was angry' is telling.)

But here's the million-euro question: do readers care about that sort of thing as much as writers do?

To answer that question we need look no further than E.L. James' Fifty Shades trilogy, because it's easy to forget that, actually, it wasn't always branded the epitome of bad writing. When it first hit the (virtual) bookshelves it was a massive hit, and people were raving about it. Celebrities were happy to be seen - even photographed - reading it, and it turned Ms. James into a millionaire almost overnight.

And who was responsible for its initial, runaway success? Readers. As in, people whose first priority when choosing a book for themselves is a darn good story, not how 'well-written' a book is. It's only when the writer-readers - i.e. people who also wrote books themselves or aspired to - bought the book (perhaps to try and figure out what the heck the magic formula was for such phenomenal success) that the tide began to turn against it. Yes, it does break a lot of the 'Rules of Good Writing' and breaks them with repeated (very repeated) impunity. It's easy to see why legions of writer-readers who've spent years honing their craft and beating their writing into shape according to all these golden Writing Rules would regard Fifty Shades as a slap in the face to all that hard work and dedication. Especially when that 'badly-written' thing sells a million gazillion copies, gets made into a movie, has the whole world talking about it for years to come...

E.L. James isn't even alone in being ridiculed for her writing style. Stephanie Meyer and Dan Brown are regularly labelled 'bad writers' too - in spite of also writing multiple bestsellers and having millions of reader fans. Heck, even J.K. Rowling gets picked on for her love of adverbs. But what they all have in common is the ability to tell a story in a way that hooks their readers in and keeps them turning the pages. And that's not achieved by obeying all the Writing Rules designed to make your prose technically brilliant - it's a different kind of magic altogether.

Or maybe it isn't 'magic' at all.

Maybe what those best-selling 'bad writers' are doing is simply writing their stories with slightly different priorities to the 'Great Writers.' Perhaps for them, the story comes first, and the 'quality' of the writing comes second. Sometimes, using passive voice is the only way to show a protagonist's feelings of powerlessness in a scene. Sometimes giving your readers a brief summary of certain events (telling) is preferable to making them metaphorically sit through every trivial detail (showing.) And sometimes a well-chosen adverb can add just the right flavour to an ordinary verb, in a way that reaching for the rare and beautiful Super-Verb can't. By all means make use of the Writing Rules - but never sacrifice clarity to do so. Say what you mean to say, in order to tell the story you mean to tell - even if that requires you to break out the 'was'-es  and 'ly'-words.

Story first, writing to impress other writers second. That's how to craft a bestseller.

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