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.
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.
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.