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.