“Secret Writing Rules” and Why to Ignore Them…

A great post from Anne R. Allen via Chris the Story-Reading Ape. Thanks, Chris!

Actually, some of my *favorite* rules to ignore! Especially 1, 3, 5, 6–gee, all of them.

But I do have several cents worth of addenda from my own experience in writing groups and classrooms.

Number 1 is among my favorites because so many critiquers in my current online writing group just HATE “echoes” to the point that they are tone-deaf to the power of repetition for emphasis and rhythm. Anne’s examples beautifully illustrate this point.

And I love #3 because of the many times I’ve been scolded for using “passive voice” when in fact I was using a progressive tense, which requires “to be” as an auxiliary. I agree that progressive tenses can be overused, but there’s a big difference between “He ate when she came in” and “He was eating when she came in.” Again, check out Anne’s examples.

As for #5, I’ve often started to write a post on the consequences of cutting “all” adverbs. Idiocy. You could never use a “when” or “before” or “after” clause if you tried to do that. You could never use “often” or “never.” Okay, some adverbs don’t add any information. Cut them. But stay sane. I have discovered in myself a tendency to pile up adjectives, and I appreciate having that lapse pointed out. And I do believe in the power of strong verbs. But just the right adjective, in just the right place, can be magic.

As for the passive voice, the wonderful book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by the late Joe Williams (latest editions co-authored by Greg Colomb) has a terrific discussion of the uses and abuses of the passive voice—and actually clarifies what that critter is! Check it out.

As for point of view, in the comments Anne clarifies that she means using multiple points of view in different scenes, not in the same paragraph or even sentence, as I’ve seen writers do. I’ve become paranoically sensitive to accidental POV slips, almost to the point, I fear, of annoying some of my fellow critiquers. But I’ve been re-reading some Tony Hillerman, and he “head-hops” all the time. So what to do? Make a deliberate decision that head-hopping really serves your text. My guess is that the practice will interfere with the close identification you want to build between reader and character.

Also in the comments, Anne touches on the “that/which” option. In my view, these are clear-cut, with “that” opening an essential modifier and “which” a non-essential one. But as Joe Williams pointed out almost forty years ago in his classic essay, “The Phenomenology of Error,” even the most rabid promoters of the distinction ignore it all the time. So we can, too.

My bottom line (note cliché, rule #7): Writing is about making choices. Knowing why readers sometimes object to style choices helps you make good decisions. But sometimes those decisions are to ignore.



Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

by Anne R. Allen

Somerset Maugham famously said, “There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.”

But pretty much everybody you meet in the publishing business will give you a list of them. (One is “never start a sentence with ‘there are’” —so watch yourself, Mr. Maugham.)

Some of the rules show up in any standard writing book or class, but others only seem to get circulated in critique groups, conference workshops, and forums.

They’re a secret to everybody else.

But you’ll run into them sooner or later. In a forum or workshop, somebody will tell you with schoolmarmish assurance that you MUST follow these secret writing rules to be a successful novelist.

Nobody knows exactly where these rules come from, or why so many great books have become classics without following a single one.

Don’t get me wrong: many “secret writing rules” involve useful tips…

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Filed under correct grammar for writers of fiction, Editing your novel, grammar rules for writers, Learning to write, Myths and Truths for writers, self editing for fiction writers, style for writers, Writers' groups, Writing

2 responses to ““Secret Writing Rules” and Why to Ignore Them…

  1. T Francis Sharp

    Well, surprise, surprise, but I kinda wanna (oops, broke a rule there) weigh in here. Rules are stupid. I do agree one ought to know the rules before you break them, but the best writing breaks them early, often and repeatedly.

    Rule 1: Frigging love, and I mean love, love, love echoes.

    I fancy rule two, about pov. Suggesting that a single ‘deep’ pov is only useful for a simple linear story is rubbish. Yes multiple pov’s adds a type of depth missing from a single pov, but there is much to be said about experiencing other characters through a single lens. If done right, these characters (oops, broke rule 1) and events can take on a complexity and richness through inference just not possible if that character has his own pov.

    Rule 3: You’ll (oops rule 4. Good I can skip that one) have to pry my “justs” from my cold dead fingers. I think “it” deserves a mention as well. Great word. The instance on specificity borders on the absurd. I started my latest book with the sentence: It came from the north. Boy, did that get panned quick.

    Rule 5: Remove all adverbs. Stephen King, as the most often cited source of this rule, should have to stand in a corner for that one. What nonsense. Maybe old Steve should crack open one of his books and count the adverbs. Every page is littered (oops, passive voice) with them.

    Rule 6: Passive voice: Is natural. And I do agree it can be overdone, but there is a place for a balanced mix of passive and active voice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I also realized but forgot to put it in my addenda that people seem to be afraid of 1) semicolons; and 2) the word “had.” Two elements that can be overused, but neither of which will poison the soup. 🙂


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