Friday, July 6, 2012

Abusing the rules of writing: don't!

The rules of writing have a place. They get us into good writing habits; they teach us the general concept and help us to write invisibly.

But they're also dangerous.

I can't begin to count the number of times I've had someone shove a 'rule of writing' in my face like it's a law of physics. "Adverbs are the mark of a lazy writer and should be killed on sight," I've been told, and certainly there's a reason adverbs are unpopular. But is adverb-o-cide really the correct course of action?

Usually these bold and all-encompassing statements are accompanied by articles on good writing. Sometimes creative writing teachers are cited, famous authors are quoted, books on writing proffered (and then sermonized). 

America's high-blood pressure issues may have as much to do with skepticism than fast food, if you ask me. Because I advise taking rules with a grain of salt.

The problem with writing instructors, is that they can only teach you how to write like someone else. It's up to you to develop your own style. The make-it-or-break-it of a novel comes down to characters, plot, and the ability of a reader to get and stay lost in your world. How you achieve these things may not be the same way Hemingway did.

For that matter, if you're writing category romance or sci-fi westerns in Hemingway's style, you might be doing something incorrectly.

Know the rules. Know them well. They do improve your writing. But also be warned against misusing the rules, or using them when they don't accomplish your purpose.

What do I mean? Let's look at two commonly abused rules: "Show, don't tell" and "Never use adverbs."

"Show, don't tell." Not everything should be shown. This rule is frequently misunderstood. For example, let's talk transitions: if several days pass between important scenes, the flow of your novel will be improved by cutting those days out and tellingwhat happened instead of showing each and every one. Consider how boring it would be to describe what these characters ate and what they did all day each day at the office. Assume they're already well developed, and the writer has offered already an idea of what their average day is like:

Shaking her hair out of her face, she holstered her gun and slumped against the wall.
"Dinner?" Jeremy asked.
She nodded. "Dinner."
The week went by without event, a blur of office work and burritos. Friday started the same. But then, she found the shoe.
Sometimes, you just don't need to know. Transitions are an excellent example of when "show, don't tell" does not apply.

"Never use adverbs." Except when an adverb says it best. I've heard people suggest I apply this rule by erasing any word ending with -ly, but then my supply of usable words would fly below an acceptable level. Good word choice will reduce your need for adverbs, but overusing fancy tags in your dialogue is distracting, and sometimes, howsomething is said or done is as important as that it is said or done. Not to mention that your characters probably won't shun adverbs in their dialogue.

Use adverbs sparingly? Maybe, but maybe not. ("Nicely done," said Jeremy.)

Better to say, "use adverbs correctly." Not just grammatically, but also when (and only when) an adverb says it best. 

The rules of writing exist for a reason. Many reasons. But don't fall into the trap of abusing them. Professional writing instructors may tout their method as the one true way, and while their advice may generally be good advice - there is no one true way! Learn the rules, yes! And then, learn how to break them.

What rules of writing do you see being abused? When do they not apply?

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