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Real Rules for Writers to Follow

November 16, 2013


  • Don’t ever end a sentence with a preposition.
  • Don’t use too many adjectives or adverbs.
  • Avoid immoderately long sentences.
  • Passive voice is still verboten.
  • You cannot write a successful short story using second-person point of view.

All of these are rules I have heard before. They are given to writers the way ranching brands are “given” to cattle. Prescriptive thinking unfortunately flows as freely in the writing world as officiousness. So if you’re a writer of any kind chances are very good that you know exactly what I mean on a stingingly personal level.

There’s all too often a quiet tension that settles over these scenes of instruction when outside of the appropriate context of a writing workshop one reader turns suddenly into the critic of a fellow writer’s work and lands the devilish blow.

It may be a rule to follow–

Don’t overwrite your sentences

Or a back-handed compliment–

The diversity of trends today is amazing, you know, I would have thought that nobody was doing that kind of thing anymore

Or just plain commandment–

Thou shalt not …write about zombies as if they are serious philosophers. Not ever!

Whenever the turn to instruction comes it strikes me as a failed opportunity for something else. Community. Understanding. Nothing so vulgar as coddling or ego stroking. No way. Who would want that? Not me.

Like most people these days I would hate to live in a world where at any given second during a chance encounter someone else would feel towards me the way a mother or father might. That would be terrible. Can you just imagine what a sentimental hell that would be? I want no part of it. I don’t want intimacy. Nor do I want, far worse, the unplanned possibility of intimacy looming at the margins of my social interactions like shy people dancing jerkily at the perimeter of a high school prom.

I don’t want that. And now that I think about it, maybe I don’t want “love” or emotion from anyone else either. You can keep all of the derivatives too–like acknowledgment and sympathy. What a panicked and shadowy figure sympathy is these days. Sympathy skulks. It wears a hood drawn low over averted eyes. It hopes no one in the new regime of casual cynicism notices. Because that’s when the pitchforks and the torches come out for Sympathy, that poor chased outcast.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that there’s a component of doing anything that requires craft as well as talent. Building a fine wooden birdhouse takes vision as well as technique. There’s a certain set of best practices that kicks in, which separates those who know how to make a bird house and how to use the tools involved from those who are only eager to build yet unpracticed. But what gets passed along in the name of craft is less often about instruction than inculcation.

It is less about teaching than the transmission of a particular attitude, more of a way to think about building bird houses than about the building of them. Get tough. Thicken that skin. There is an infinite array of bad ways of doing a thing and now I’m going to point out how you happen to be committing all of them. Oh and why am I punishing I mean, helping you? Because I care about you or the craft, yeah that’s the ticket, the price of the ticket, to board the platform of this train, the Return of the Repressed Express, where traumatic things that happened to me get retracked to your train station, where it can chew chew chew chew your soul and finally leave me alone already.

Beware of interacting with people who think in these terms.

Do not beware of people who might at any moment get the sudden impression that you are one of them, a long lost member of the family, magically returned to the fold. ‘Cause who wants a fold? A fold sounds like a warm, soft place, so hatefully womb-like and infantalizing, and we all know how easy it is to hate babies and anything associated with them like innocence. Gross!

I thought I saw some Innocence skulking about the other day. I was about to reach for my pitchfork but I was in the process of being scolded by some passer by for my unfashionable predilection for allegory. Luckily that person gave me a set of Mosaic prohibitions to follow and now I’m all set thank you very much.

From → writing tips

  1. Brieuse Bernhard Piers-Gûdmönd permalink

    When teaching music, some teach music theory (harmony, counterpoint) and think they are teaching music composition. They are simply teaching what composers of yesteryear have done. The composers themselves did what they jolly well liked, from which others formulated “rules”. I think it’s the same for writing. Read, read and read to discover what others have done, not what you should do yourself. Thank for a thought-provoking posting.

  2. This is why I joined a writers group rather than have my husband or friends proof read my manuscripts. They tell it like it is.

  3. Michael Andreoni permalink

    I think the true “prescriptive” for both writer and reviewer is to read widely. The number of successful rule-breaking stories out there is amazing.

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