Monday, September 24, 2018

Rules, Guidelines, and Just Plain Bad Advice by Lynda Dietz, Editor

My (now-adult) kids think I’m a rule follower. And to some extent, I am. But oh, back in the day, I was a rule breaker all the way. I think part of my problem with rules was that I needed to understand the “why” of them to know whether it was worth my time to follow them or not.

In the writing world, there is always someone pointing to this rule or that one, telling us to ALWAYS do this or NEVER do that. Even among editors, you can get fifty different opinions from forty different people—statistically impossible? Never say never—on how to properly edit a passage.

That alone is a prime example of why it’s important to know the real rules (yes, there are some) and the guidelines that are misinterpreted as unbreakable commandments. What makes people stifle their creativity based on a misunderstanding?

The writing world is made up, for the most part, of people who want to be successful, whether that means becoming obnoxiously rich and famous, typing “THE END” after working on a story for years, selling enough books each month to afford extra things, or quitting their day job because they can earn enough to live on, even if they’re not famous.

Those who want to write a good story and perhaps be commercially successful tend to look at what other successful people have done, and use that as a guideline. Guidelines are great. I love guidelines! They give a big-picture sense of what can be achieved if certain other conditions are met. Good advice is known as good advice for a reason, right?

The problem comes in when the good advice is repeated often enough out of context that it becomes known as a rule, or a set of rules. Perhaps even unbreakable, never-do-this-or-you’re-not-a-real-author kind of rules. And those are just plain bad.

Enter the Worst Writing Advice, usually stated with a note of disdain or accompanied by a wagging finger and severe eyebrows. The Worst Writing Advice is never asked for and rarely researched for validity. It’s stated firmly and the conversation is not two-sided. No one questions why, and no one asks for clarification. And yet—

The recipient often takes that WWA and repeats it to someone else. Before you know it, all kinds of people are quoting a rule that isn’t a rule, and they’re ready to arm-wrestle anyone who dares to call them out on it. Such a violent sport sometimes, being a writer.

Think about these bits of writing advice you may have heard, masquerading as hard & fast rules:
  1. Get rid of all your adverbs
  2. Never end a sentence with a preposition
  3. Always write in complete sentences
  4. Never use contractions
  5. Never use semicolons in fiction
  6. Always remove the passive voice
  7. “Said” is boring and you need to spice things up

The above examples are valid advice sometimes. But they shouldn’t be confused with actual rules, and nobody should be made to feel bad about themselves if they don’t follow that advice. Here are some reasons why it may be given:
  1. Adverbs can be overused as a crutch by some who haven’t yet gotten the hang of showing v. telling. Let’s assume those forty editors mentioned earlier have forty writer friends. Write “he spoke angrily” and ask what they picture when they read those words. Some may picture shouting; some may envision speaking through gritted teeth; some may hear a voice getting more shrill with each word. If you show those actions, the reader gets the clear idea that the speaker is angry, the type of anger that’s happening, and the adverb “angrily” is unnecessary. But guess what? Adverbs are real words and sometimes they’re the exact word you’re looking for, so go ahead and use it. Just find that balance between “overuse” and “completely forbidden.”
  2. Terminal prepositions. This not-a-rule goes back centuries to a talented but overblown poet who gave an opinion once, and everyone taught it as a commandment from that point forward. It’s fine if you end with them, and it’s fine if you don’t. Just don’t try to wrangle your words into a mess of a sentence to avoid it.
  3. Pfft. That’s my opinion of this one. Always writing in complete sentences is for schoolchildren who are learning the structure of the sentence. It’s not always practical in real life, and it kills any impact a writer may be trying to make, whether for shock value or merely for emphasis. She opened the door to the kitchen and gasped. Blood. No—cherry pie, everywhere. The floor. The cabinets. The walls. And . . . the curtains? The black Lab puppy sat in silence, facing the corner, head down. Complete sentences would make this sound like a children’s book. They’re not bad, and most of your sentences will be unfragmented, independent clauses. But don’t stress the ones that aren’t, if you’ve done it on purpose.

The list goes on. Knowledge is different from wisdom. Knowing the rules so you can break them for effect is great. Knowing when your rule isn’t even a rule at all is even better.


I’m a copyeditor who has worked with authors in a variety of genres, both in fiction and nonfiction. I live with my husband and kids in the northernmost tip of western Pennsylvania—right on Lake Erie in wine country, so my backyard smells like grapes in the fall. (We can’t smell anything in the winter because our noses are frozen shut.) I’ve kept an editing blog for over five years and love the writing community I’ve gotten to know. I can hardly believe I get paid to do two things I love: editing and singing . . . though I don’t do them simultaneously.
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38 comments:

Pat Hatt said...

Balance sure is key. Pffft works for us too. Do what works.

nashvillecats2 said...

This was so interesting to read Alex, Very impressive.

Yvonne.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Thanks again, Lynda!

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Incomplete sentences are great for tension and have their place.

The Cynical Sailor said...

I think it's smart to distinguish between guidelines and rules. Incomplete sentences can be really impactful when used well. Thanks for sharing, Lynda :)

Karen Lange said...

Yes! I heartily agree. Thanks, Lynda, for sharing your thoughts and insight.

Jeanette Levellie said...

Thanks for this wisdom, Lynda. I write in fragments. My son, with a BA in English Comp., goes crazy reading my writing. But it works for me. My 5th book comes out next Spring. So. There.

Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt said...

'Said' IS boring; but replacing it with the constructs of the penny dreadfuls (exclaimed, ex-anything, screamed, etc., etc.) or by qualifying a weak verb with an adverb (said awesomely) isn't my solution.

I use dialogue tags as little as possible, instead. It's harder to write that way, and requires extra work, but the flow, especially in long books, is much improved.

Just use SOMETHING often enough so readers are never confused as to who is speaking, or to whom. Confusion of readers is the prime sin.

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Great tips! I always get nervous and overthink the rules. That's such a story killer.

cleemckenzie said...

Blast those rules, I say, and onward. I really dislike the "creative" attribute the most. I turn downright cranky when I come across blurted. I don't know why that one gets me, but it does. You could say it is something up with which I won't put. :-)

mike spain said...

Interesting read

Lynda Dietz said...

Pat, I'm in complete agreement. Balance somehow goes out the window when people worry about rules. Thank you for pfft-ing with me!

Yvonne, thank you for taking the time to read it!

Alex, I so appreciate you thinking of me for a post.

Diane, I love incomplete sentences! I equate them with tension and suspense, or something really cool just around the corner.

Ellen, having read your writing, I can vouch for the fact that you use the language well. Thanks for the comment!

Karen, thank you! I had a good time visiting.

Jeanette, so there, indeed! I'll take interesting writing over English Comp anyday (no offense to your son, haha). And congrats on the fifth book! WOW.

Alicia, thanks for popping over here to read and comment! I like that: "Confusion of readers is the prime sin." Happy readers are the ultimate goal.

Elizabeth, you're right; there's nothing that kills a story faster than blindly following a maybe-rule that squashes all the creativeness.

Lee, I'm with you. Blurted gets me too, but "roared" is my personal peeve.

Mike, thanks!

Tyrean Martinson said...

Love your tips! Although as an English teacher trying to help my students get their writing ready for college essays, the SAT essay, and other more hidebound essay assignments, I generally tell my students to never use an incomplete sentence for essays in my class. What they do after that is up to them. I know that it's not really a hard rule for life, but it helps with those young writers tempted to put these sentences in the middle of their essays: "Definitely. Really."



Tyrean Martinson said...

Oops, and here I am commenting from my teacher e-mail. Sorry about that.

T. Powell Coltrin said...

A girl after my own heart!!! (Yes, that was three exclamations.) I love rules and guidelines until I don't. Great article, Lynda.

Patricia Lynne said...

I'm a firm believer in rules are made to be broken. Not all the time. It's a case by case basis, but I think it's a good approach.

dolorah said...

My kind of editor :) If something works, it does. I agree about the "over use" of any style. I love books on writing, but have noticed that after a while, they all say the same things about the "rules" or all contradict each other. A flexible editor in valuable for a writer.

diedre Knight said...

A reassuring beacon in a choppy sea of rules! Thank you, Lynda ;-)

Lynda Dietz said...

Tyrean, one of my high school teachers required that we always answer a question with a full sentence that had the question in it, so the reader would know from the answer what the question was. It was tedious but a great exercise for formal writing like what you're teaching. It all has its place.

T. Powell, that's terrific—"I love rules and guidelines until I don't." I'm right there with you. And thanks for the THREE exclamations!

Patricia, that's the beauty of it, right? If you know what they are, then breaking them judiciously isn't such a crime.

Dolorah, the editing communities I'm part of are pretty wonderful about the changing language. They all stress the not-so-flattering editor reputation and how we are supposed to be here to help, not scold. They've taught me to be flexible, which makes for happier writers who still put out a good product.

Diedre, thank you for the encouragement!

J.T. Buckley said...

What? Not write in complete sentences? I completely agree. If someone consistently writes in all complete sentences, it feels stilted, less real. I have never heard of not using semicolons; without them, I wouldn't have any idea how to write creatively or not sound like I am on a bumpy road. Or writing in a boat. Okay I am through breaking "rules" now. Everyone have a great evening.

D Biswas said...

We must know all the rules before breaking them, but once we know them, they're meant to be broken in service of the character or the story.

I love your list--most of them are bits of advice taken totally out of context, now masquerading as rules.

Damyanti

Melissa said...

Great advice.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Lynda - lovely post ... you always explain things so well. I don't know the rules - and I really should - but as long as people appreciate what I'm writing then I'm fine. I guess - when it came to a submission ... I'd have to accept the replies would be full (if I was lucky) of red lines ... still life goes on. Lovely interesting comments you've got from others too - and thanks for this - cheers Hilary

Lynda Dietz said...

JT, thanks for being such a loyal reader of the stuff I spit out. Bumpy road, boat or not, I'm glad you trust me to do what I do.

Damyanti, isn't it amazing how much things change when taken in and out of context? And I appreciate the double visit and comments!

Melissa, thank you!

Hilary, you may claim to not know the official rules, but I think your writing is interesting and easy to understand. And really, that's what it's all about. Thanks for visiting both posts today!

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Someone... Picasso, I think... said, "Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist." I think writers should have a basic understanding of grammatical and punctuation rules, but bending over backwards to make their writing adhere to some arbitrary "rule" stifles creativity and diminishes the potential value of their work.

Great post! Thank you.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

Thank you for this excellent post, Lynda. Well received and shared everywhere.

Alexandra said...

I'm pretty sure I'm doing everything wrong, then. Especially since I love semicolons. Good thing I don't care much for rules--after I understand them enough to break them.

Thank you for the post. I enjoyed it!

Toi Thomas said...

Great post.
Guidelines are helpful, but rules are restrictive. Rules serve a purpose, but mostly they just get in the way.

Lynda Dietz said...

Susan, Picasso sure seemed to know what he was talking about, even if he did put noses on the sides of people's ears in his paintings. An artist should always have flexibility to make their art unique, and rule-breaking (or recognizing guidelines) is part of that.

Joylene, thank you so much for commenting and sharing, too!

Alexandra, I love semicolons, too. And there's nothing wrong with them, so you're probably using them well. Don't let anyone tell you they're illegal in some states

Toi, some rules need to be restrictive—we don't want anarchy, after all—but people must apply wisdom to the knowledge they collect or it's all garbage in the end. That's when rules can feel like they're in the way more than being helpful. Thanks for the comment!

cinderkeys said...

Avoiding "said" is one of those fake rules thought up by well-intentioned hypercorrectors. They've absorbed the good advice about avoiding repetition of words and phrases and applied it to the one place where repetition is invisible.

As Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt alluded to, you can break up dialogue tags with beats and lines of dialogue where there's no attribution at all. But when you use tags, you can get away with "said" forever.

There's another bad-writing-advice rule that tells us NEVER to use "said." While it's a good idea not to go too wild with the tags, it's fine to substitute something else every once in a while.

cinderkeys said...

Oops. "...another bad-writing-advice rule that tells us never to use anything BUT 'said.'"

Nicole Pyles said...

The rule that bugs me the most is the "said" one. I prefer using and showing the emotions in other ways.

Lisa said...

Thank you thank you thank you! Love hearing this from an editor.

Spacer Guy said...

We put so much emotion into our writing but is that a good thing? In the old days we used to believe the world was a scary place ruled by ogres and evil entities, witches and all that nonsense but who buys into that make believe and fear anymore. Thank you for helping me to expand my vocabulary because now I'll be able to demonstrate my powers which I can feel growing already, hehe.

Lynda Dietz said...

Cinderkeys and Nicole, the "said" rule/advice is hammered so strongly on both sides that it makes me crazy to think of so many people blindly following either way. I've seen so many things OTHER than "said" that I've been pulled out of the story. And sometimes I've seen ONLY "said" and thought of how it would be nice to have a "whispered" here and there.

Knowledge is nothing without wisdom.

Cara H said...

My only rule is that rules are for fools. ;-)
Like deadlines, I prefer rules to be soft.
Actually, I do tend to follow the basic rules. I hate the current tendency of question mark abuse and lack of capitalization. darn these kids and their question mark abuse???? am i right???? Yeah, that drives me bats.

Liesbet said...

Fantastic article, Lynda. I think writers should have some freedom with these guidelines/rules, as this would be a part of their voice. Especially the short sentences do the trick for building up tension or reflecting the action/feelings of the protagonist. I use this technique in my memoir a few times and like to keep it. The point is brought across without full, winding sentences. My word count is too high as it is. :-)

Lynda Dietz said...

Lisa, I'm glad you enjoyed it! Many editors I know hate the "zombie rules" that writers follow without knowing why (or if they're valid at all).

Spacer Guy, now you have me thinking of Reginald Barclay from STNG with the "demonstrate my powers which I can feel growing already" comment.

Cara, the ???? abuse bothers me almost as much as the people who use the question mark when there's no question. Like, "I saw a guy by the side of the road. I can't believe these people?" Uggghh. Where is the question? And I know someone who never caps "i" and it makes me twitch.

Liesbet, thank you so much! I agree, so often people try too hard to enforce rules, with a result of the writing becoming bland and no longer unique. So many editors I know try really hard to not be the police, but rather the "let's make this as pleasantly readable as possible" helper.