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.
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.
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