Rules - Are They Made To Be Broken?

People should obey the rules. 

That seems obvious, doesn’t it? 

Especially in the middle of a pandemic. 

Who wants to be infected by someone with a severe case of: ‘Nobody’s going to tell me what to do?’ 

We all know the difference between a free spirit and selfishness.

But what about us writers, who juggle creativity and simplicity, originality, and comprehensibility? 

Are there any writing rules that you kicked against when you first picked up your literary pen?

Some rules that have bothered me are:

1. Don’t make your protagonist an animal – unless it’s a children’s book, of course.

2. Don’t resolve your mystery (and cheat your reader) with: He woke up to find it had all been a dream. 

3a. Use adjectives sparingly.   

3b. Use adverbs very sparingly, preferably not at all. 

You might have found 3a and 3b tough at first, because at school you were encouraged to spread them liberally, in the belief that they gave writing its flavour and colour. 

However, there is helpful advice for the confused – find the right verb and make it do the work of the adverb instead.

4. Show, don’t tell – something we get the hang of gradually, the more authors we read.

5. Never use a long word when a shorter one is available.

It’s number 5 I want to investigate, especially that word never. Here’s what happened to me when I joined an online critiquing boot-camp many years ago:-

My protagonist was a woman in her eighties, dressed in a full-length brown coat and ankle boots. Before her, straining at their leashes, went her three small dogs. The sentence in question ran: 

'Through the café window, the two men watched as she processed down the street.'

Fellow campers pounced on me, barely concealing their derision.

‘Processed? What’s that supposed to mean?’ someone asked. 

Apparently, no-one uses a dictionary these days. 

‘Why not “walked?”’ suggested another. 

Ah yes, a shorter word, so better, surely? 

Well no, actually, because she absolutely did not walk. 

She was moving as a column of choirboys would down the aisle of a cathedral. 

If I’d used 'walked', I would have had to add 'swaying gently from side to side'. Instead, I’d found the perfect verb. But no matter, it was two syllables when a one-syllable word was to hand. 

Literary crime! Let slip the dogs of critique!

Sad to say, the story in question never won any competitions, but on a tick-box comment sheet a reader picked out the offending word and wrote brilliant beside it, so I felt vindicated – someone agreed with me.

I do understand why the rule matters. 

No writer should be indulging in flowery or over-elaborate language. Using obscure words in an attempt to seem intellectual or clever is just annoying. 

But editing one’s work, killing one’s darlings, can sometimes feel like masochism. 

What proportion of varied and finely nuanced words in our English lexicon are we prepared to sacrifice on the altar of obedience? 

Where does word-rejection end and dumbing down begin?

I’d love to know your thoughts on this?


Jan Cascarini has a background in Theatre and the Dramatic Arts. Now retired, Jan divides her time between writing short stories full of elegance & poignancy, and growing things in her allotment.


Unknown said…
My observation about the modern short story is this: It is all the same style and theme. The VAST majority of winning short story contests are first person narrative about family or friends. Surely nothing wrong with writing about family or friends, but all of the winning stories can't be just that. The literary contests are intellectually dead. Boring stories.It is hypocritical in contest to say "we accept all genres," which they do, (with the entrance fee) and yet all genres are not winners. I have never read a gothic horror, or a fight story, or an army story or anything that is remotely considered intellectual humor win. Ever. Did all (especially the American writers) read the same books and have the same writing teachers? Is the modern writer a clone of Margaret Atwood? Don't get me started how POLITICALLY CORRECTNESS the world of writing has become.
Anonymous said…
I love this post - I'm not sure whether I agree with you about the long word / short word issue. I'm a great believer in keeping things as simple as possible. If I'm making a reader put my book down and reach for a dictionary too often, is there a risk they just won't pick my book up again afterwards?

That said, if you've hit on the right word - it's probably best just to use it!
Jessica Triana said…
Thanks for comments. I admit that I have often wondered the same. As a fantasy writer myself, I think there's little point in submitting to literary competitions. But having said that, the Exeter Writers Short Story competition winner this year was On Talon Moor, a gothic horror short story, so perhaps it isn't as foolhardy to enter 'all genre' contests as it at first appears!

Having said that, it is wise to submit to magazines and publishers who specialise in your genre as well. :-)
Unknown said…
Thank you Jessica for the comments. I read quite a few "winners" and the contests and competitions have the same stories---mostly dreary first person narratives about family and friends. Stories basically of dysfunctional people. Nothing wrong with that per se, but ALL stories cannot be on that subject. Judging then becomes the tyranny of sadness wins. The sadder the better. And if you can make the character a minority, lesbian women from another country, well, you've covered all bases. Politically Correctness is like cancer killing creativity and forcing all to bow down to their PCness and half of one word and they will stone you to death. Death to political correctness. Oh well, life goes on.