Writing “Rules” are Bullshit (“Advice” for Newbie Writers)

I wrote this once, in a previous post, but… I really do stand by the statement…

All those “always” or “never” things writing bloggers like to call “rules” are really more what we call “guidelines,” and should not be adhered to as the laws of writing. Every tool has it’s place in your prose. The trick is knowing when, where, and how to use them, just like in the wood shop.

Here’s what I’m talking about. I see it all over the internet. Don’t use adverbs. Don’t use dialogue tags. Don’t this. Don’t that. Always these, always those. But never, ever… Seriously? They teach this to you in school when they teach you how to take a multiple choice question. The first thing they say is that any statement that says “always” or “never” is going to be false, or is not the right answer.

This applies to pretty much everywhere else in life too. As soon as you say “always” or “never” someone will jump in with a plethora of examples to the contrary. As I mentioned, they’re really more like guidelines than rock-solid rules. My favorite (and the one I most vehemently despise) is the “don’t use adverbs”/”adverbs are the devil” rule.

No. They’re not. Do you really have any idea what-so-ever how many times you’ll use an adverb in a day? Probably a lot more than you think. Let’s take a quick look at words that are adverbs. I remember being taught that adverbs end with ‘ly.’ Well sure. But not all of them do. And not all words that end in ‘ly’ are adverbs either. adverbs of degreeThis is just a sampling of the adverbs that are most commonly used. (Or at least that’s the claim anyway.)

But here’s the thing. When I’m writing, and I say that “he said quietly” what does that mean? It means he said something in a voice that is above a whisper, but below normal speaking volume. It gets the point across without turning the entire sentence into purple, or redundant prose. If you’re new eough to writing to not know what “purple prose” is, it means flowery, excessive, overly-descriptive prose. You know… that section that just keeps going on and on and on and on… well you get the picture. If I’ve just had dialogue with a lot of action beats instead of dialogue tags, then it’s time to break up the sameness and use a different tool for a different effect. Maybe my characters were arguing about something, in each others’ faces, screaming at each other mad when all of a sudden…

He shoved his hands in his pockets and sighed. “Because you matter to me,” he said quietly, his eyes soft and sincere.

When my character “said quietly,” it’s because s/he didn’t say it in a normal voice, and also didn’t whisper it. Sure, there are other ways to say it. That’s the beauty of language. But adverbs are a part of our language, a tool of our trade. And just like a hand saw in a wood-working shop, there’s always a right time and place and way to use the tool. You know that saying, “variety is the spice of life”? Well… it applies to literature too.

I might not be a famous author, so you can take all this with a grain of salt, but don’t stifle your writing by adhering rigidly to these rules. Embrace those adverbs – especially in your earlier drafts. You can cut back on them in editing mode, finding new ways to say what you really wanted to say in the first place. It’s the same with every other tool. Use them. The trick (and I’m still learning this too!) is learning when, where, and how to use each one effectively, and with the most impact. The best advice I’ve ever gotten is to read a lot, and with a critical eye to when, where, and how the tools are used.

It’s also good to be a part of an online writing community. Personally, I’m a member of Scribophile, which is a critiquing site. Everyone there is learning – just like I am, just like you are. It’s a site where you can workshop your works in “chapters” and have them critiqued and commented on. I’ve learned so much more since becoming an active member of the community than I could have just by reading up on all the writing style guides and rule guides and other writing-related paraphernalia out there.

However you write, whatever you write, your style and your voice are your own. Stay true to the story you set out to tell and use all of the tools in your tool box to complete the project. I promise that tool you were afraid of (drill press anyone? No? That’s just me?) might just end up saving the day.

(PS: I was going to say something brilliant and profound about something else mildly related here, but alas, it has slipped my mind, so you’re stuck with this snarky aside instead.)


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