Rules. Advice. Words of wisdom. We writers are bombarded with information on how to write better, how to make our work more saleable, how to increase our daily word count etc. There are books on the subject. Blogs (including this one, which I hope you all find helpful ~winsome smile~). Whole conventions, with scores of panels, staffed by experts.
One person will insist you must follow X rule in order to succeed, while the next says “No!” It’s rule Y!”. Still others will argue in favor of no rules at all—rules only impair creativity, they say, and you will never achieve greatness by following them.
So…who’s right? The “follow the rules” people, or proponents of “to hell with rules!” (THWR)?
Answer: both are right. And wrong. Like most things, it’s not black-and-white. It depends on whether you’re talking about craft, or method; where you’re at in the writing process (i.e. a beginner or more experienced); and the purpose for which you’re writing (e.g. just having fun or under contract to produce a novel), to name but a few factors that come into play.
When it comes to craft, I believe that there is at least one hard-and-fast rule that ought to be followed by everyone; newbies and crusty, experienced types alike:
“Omit needless words.” Strunk & White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed., p. 23*
I cannot say it any better. All of your words should matter. Cut filler, as this only distances your reader from the meat of your story.
Examples (pgs. 23 & 24):
there is no doubt but that doubtless
in spite of the fact that although
Repetitive description should also be avoided—there’s no need to describe the same thing (e.g. your damsel in distress’s beautiful, shining, golden hair) three different ways. Pick the most resonant and best-written sentence or passage and stick with that.
Now, the THWR-types may argue that wordiness could be considered a matter of style, and therefore this rule ought not to be relentlessly followed, either. It is true that certain styles call for verbosity—Victorian influenced writing comes to mind. But in such a case the extra words aren’t needless; they are considered. Most often there is no reason for filler, and the author simply hasn’t given the matter thought, and/or hasn’t edited each sentence for brevity.
There are also many rules that, in my opinion, are best followed by those seeking to learn the craft. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard new authors object to a critique with something along the lines of, “Frank Herbert shifts point-of-view multiple times on one page in Dune, so it can so be done!” Well, yes, it can, but not necessarily by you. Not yet. The problem is this: many writers who respond this way weren’t even aware they were shifting point-of-view, let alone doing it for specific effect and in a way important to their story.
Most often only more experienced writers, or gifted newcomers, can play with things such as basic grammar, point-of-view, tense, passive voice, cliché etc., in a way that works on the page. First learn the rules—what they are and the purpose they serve—then experiment with breaking them. And accept that, like all experiments, it may not succeed.
This is where the books/blogs/panels come in handy. There are a multitude of resources to help a new writer learn, or a more experienced writer brush up on, the basics. Of course you may need to depart from some of the rules to pen the next literary masterpiece, lauded for its extreme creativity and genius; or…maybe not. Anyway, that isn’t everyone’s goal.
Here’s where I tend to agree with the THWR camp to a greater degree, at least when it comes to writing as an artistic endeavor.
Writing is a personal thing. Some people write 10,000 words a day; some 500 a month. Many authors swear by outlining and planning down to the smallest freckle on their protagonist’s nose; others don’t know what they will say until their fingers hit the keyboard (or grasp pen and paper). There are night owls and morning people; those who write when inspiration strikes and single moms with two jobs who write during every coffee break. Those who only write when the moon is full. And so on.
I tend to believe the “butt-in-chair” philosophy (that is: make time for writing each day; words will amass and momentum will help carry you) but am hesitant to say it works for everyone, or is the only way to succeed. And I am skeptical of anyone who proclaims that their way is the Only Way, or the Best Way, and that all others are doomed to failure. For every variation in method, you can probably find a successful role model.
So, do what works for you. Read the advice of others and, if it appeals, give it a try. If you find you love outlining, great! Go with that. But don’t get discouraged if a certain method doesn’t fit. Don’t believe it means you’re doomed to failure.
Of course, this all comes with an important caveat: if you are under contract to produce, you probably won’t have the luxury of working only according to your ideal method. You may have to write for six hours after work each evening, even though Mercury is in retrograde and your dog is barking in the next room. That’s the thing: writing is an art form but also sometimes a job. If you’re lucky enough to be getting paid, you may have to toil under less than ideal circumstances, just as you would at any other job.
So, for what they’re worth, those are my thoughts on the “rules.” What do you think? Do you agree or disagree?
* For my money, The Elements of Style is the best book on the rules of writing and I highly recommend it. Somehow they even manage to make the topic funny.