Writing ‘rules’ and why we have them #amwriting

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When editing manuscripts for clients, I honestly don’t sit there with a big list of rules next to me, making sure that the author has stuck religiously to a set of pre-ordained laws that are non-negotiable and that are designed to crush spontaneity or creativity.

Why am I making this assertion?

Well, because some writers seem to think that this is what I do. They rail against these so–called rules that are preventing their genius from shining through. Why do I have to stick to conventions, they ask? Why can’t I do what I want?

Well, because the ‘rules’ aren’t there to suffocate creativity. They aren’t there to restrict or restrain.They bring clarity to a writer’s work. They aren’t a list of things a group of people out there somewhere have come up with out of thin air.

They fall into two groups.

One group aren’t up for discussion. Sorry, but grammar rules and the rules of punctuation are non-negotiable. You want your reader to be able to understand your book, don’t you? You are writing for a reader, aren’t you? In that case, you need to adhere to grammatical rules. These are not stylistic choices. And yes, there are certainly amazing writers out there who have written wonderful books that don’t follow these grammatical rules, writers like Hubert Selby Jr. But that is a whole different set of circumstances.

The other ‘rules’ don’t have to be obeyed. But they are there to help make your writing shine. For example, one thing I’m always saying to writers is that they need to avoid using complicated dialogue tags. You can pepper your manuscript with ‘interjected’ and ‘explained’ and ‘sighed’ if you really want. You can use every single alternative to ‘said’ and ‘asked’ if you want. But you’ll look like an amateur who doesn’t know what they’re doing, or people will think you’ve swallowed a thesaurus. That or you’re Joey from Friends.

joey

I’m really not being mean here, honestly. When I studied text after text after text after text for my degree and my masters, we analysed what worked and what didn’t. These ‘rules’ work. They’ve worked for successful writers over the years and if that’s what you want to be then you need to use them. They are conventions because they work.

So back to my original point. Despite all this, I don’t have a great big list of rules (OK, I do have Elmore Leonard’s ten rules in my desk drawer as guidance if I need it, but that’s usually for my own writing). But if the writing is flowing, if it is working, if it is concise and the meaning is clear, the characters have depth, the dialogue is realistic, then these rules are being followed, whether consciously or otherwise. If something brings me up short, or something jars, or is boring, or long-winded or dull or the dialogue is unauthentic, or if something happens that reminds me I’m reading a book, then one of the ‘rules’ has usually been broken.

So here are Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing. He made them rules because they work.

Never open a book with weather.
Avoid prologues.
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

 


 

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31 comments

  1. What a waste of lovely words like’complained,’ whispered’ suggested.’ I get the point but it will be hard to change.’Said’ vanishes when it is read,but let’s allow a little variety. Poor, old fashioned me!

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    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Julie. The thing with dialogue tags is that they can become distracting and can seem forced. It should be obvious from the context of the dialogue and the dialogue itself if someone has complained, or suggested, or interrupted, for example. I’m writing a post abut dialogue tags in the next couple of weeks – I do hope you read it. I’d be interested to know what you think.

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    1. I think the key word is ‘sparingly’, Georgia. In the book I’ve just written, I’ve got a very minor character with what my mother would have called a ‘common’ accent; if I’m to portray how he speaks, I’ve got to put in the odd glottal stop or absent aitch. Have him say ’cause instead of ‘because’. But not all the way through. It’s tedious to read. Ditto regional accents. I’ve got a minor Geordie character saying ONE ‘why aye’, ONE ‘howay’ and referring to girls as ‘lasses’, but I haven’t got him talking about ‘ganning doon the toon to clart aboot’ every five minutes. Or indeed at all.

      Similarly, I know what Julie means, above. Again, it’s about SPARINGLY. The odd ‘he whispered’ where necessary works well. But the dialogue itself should portray whether the character is wailing, murmuring, etc, generally. Sometimes, ‘he muttered’ will work better than ‘he said’. That’s where the skill of writing comes in – and it’s what you can’t learn from creative writing courses, blog posts or anything else; it’s instinct. As Alison said, if it works, it works.

      Bit worried about this prologue thing…. my new book has one!!!! But it’s not one of those weird ones that doesn’t seem relevant to anything (I’ve made that mistake earlier in my writing career!). I think that, in this case, it works. I suppose I could call it Chapter One instead, but I don’t want to.

      I agree ABSOLUTELY with the ‘if it sounds like writing’ one. It’s so obvious when people have written something because they think it sounds good. If you know what I mean….

      I think the ‘leaving out the parts that readers skip’ is one of the most important points. And if you don’t know what they are, you need to read more!! If you asked another well known writer what the ten rules are, though, they’d probably come up with a completely different set.

      Well, that’s my twopenny-worth, anyway. For what it’s worth. Hopefully more than tuppence 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks, Terry 🙂 I think your point about not reading enough is absolutely spot on, and I also think you need to be careful what you read, or at least what you take from what you read (you learn as much from the bad stuff as you do from the good). And I wouldn’t worry about your prologue. I’m not 100% convinced about that one – definitely not a hard and fast ‘rule’! Sometimes they’re needed imho, even if Elmore doesn’t think so!

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    2. As Terry so rightly says, Georgia, using dialect sparingly is absolutely key, otherwise it becomes really difficult to read. I think enough to give your reader a sense of the character without overdoing it. Sorry, that sounds a bit vague, but again, I think you’ll know when it feels right.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks Terry and Alison – I feel this is something that will keep changing with every round of editing I do 🙂 I do also think that some of these ‘rules’ come down to fashion as well, particularly the prologue one, and the list doesn’t mention the stripping out of adverbs, which I’ve seen on other such lists. 🙂

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      2. Ha ha, Rough Seas!!! I am a southerner in Geordie land with a Geordie husband, so I run the subtleties of the dialogue past him!! And they really DO say ‘why aye’ and ‘howay’ – just not all the time….!

        Alison, thanks for your reassurance re the prologue. I hope you agree when you read it! :O

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  2. I shall print out Elmore Leonard’s ten rules at once – and I like your one, too. I once had a poem rejected for a publication because it sounded too ‘poem-y’. I knew exactly what the editor meant.

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    1. And I think that last rule (Elmore’s not mine :)) is really at the heart of it, isn’t it? And it’s something that’s quite hard to define in some ways. You just get a feeling that it’s right (or not, as the case may be!).

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, but he’s talking about Joey! It’s that episode when Joey writes the recommendation letter for Chandler and Monica to adopt and poor old Joey uses a thesaurus and ends up talking rubbish 🙂

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  3. We’ve had intense discussion of Elmore’s rules in one of my critique groups, and don’t accept all of them, at least not completely. But then, you know I don’t, Alison, don’t you? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ‘Sounds like writing’ – I recently started to read a book that was 50% that. I abandoned. It’s recently been taken on by an independent … shall we go back to some of your previous articles, Alison??!!

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