Rules of Writing

I might return to this topic in some future post when I have more time, but I’ve been thinking of the “rules of writing” while doing a quick editing pass on my current project. This is a pair of manuscripts I wrote several years ago, and I’ve decided to knock the dust off in preparation for self-publishing. During the re-read I’ve found myself shrieking unusual things at myself: “What’s with these long paragraphs? Too many words! Enough with the passive tense, already!”

There are many blogs/podcasts/writing advice sources that will tell you all about the so-called rules of writing, and many writers who follow them religiously. Since you’re reading a writer’s blog, you may be familiar with these rules: no passive tense, no adverbs, no said-bookisms, no dialogue tags at all if you’re really fundamentalist about it, paragraphs generally no longer than five sentences, no prologues, only first-person or third-person limited points of view and no changing between them. I tend to be the kind of writer who’s totally the opposite. I have gleefully stuffed as many adverbs and said-bookisms as possible into page-long paragraphs. I have delighted in watching Virginia Woolf and James Joyce break all the rules (not necessarily enjoying their books, I should say) and gloated about all the modern bestsellers that flaunt their prologues and passive tense and sell like hotcakes anyway. And* I sat down to edit this current project and groaned at how tediously I had written it all those years ago.

Here’s the one rule I’ll get behind: Kill your darlings. If it’s not working, if it’s confusing, if it doesn’t belong in this book, get rid of it. All the other rules, or at least the intention behind them, can be summarized in this one. The point is to make the book readable. If a prologue will help with that, keep it. If it’s just putting off the start of the story, cut it. If putting a phrase into the passive tense makes the meaning more clear, fine. If it just makes it clunky, delete it. Don’t be wedded to what you wrote the first time. (This is where putting a project aside for a few months or even a few years is helpful – it will give you some distance and some objectivity.)

I’d better get back to it now.

* Another rule: Never start a sentence with “and” or “but.” But you see the effect I was going for.