Rules For Writing: Beware The Overly Proscriptive
  • There is a formula (of sorts) to novel-writing, but that formula should always be framed in terms of principles, and not concretes.

    By concretes, I’m referring to these interminable lists of specifics we so often see that tell us what to do and what not to do but never give us the principle behind the specifics.

    Here are some actual examples of do’s-and-do-not’s that I’ve recently read, all of which were taken from real-life editors and writers:

    “Do no begin your story with weather.”

    “Do not use ellipses.”

    “Do not use the word commence.

    “Do not use the word basically.

    “Do not use the word very.

    “Never end a chapter with your character falling asleep.”

    “Never begin your chapter with your character waking up.”

    “Do not use adverbs in your dialogue tags.”

    “Cut virtually all your adverbs.”

    “Never use of if it can be cut.”

    “Never use that if it can be cut.”

    “Never say in order to but only to.

    “Never use would except to project the future.”

    “Do not use italics for emphasis.”

    “In your dialogue tags, never say said John but always keep it John said.”

    “Never introduce dialogue with John said but always put the tag after the dialogue.”

    And so on, ad infinitum.

    This method of teaching ignores the method by which the human mind works — which is to say, in principles — and chooses instead to overload the brain with endless commands that come without explication of fundamentals. And yet it is only by grasping the fundamentals behind any given thing that people can grasp the full nature of what they’re doing.

    If you grasp the nature of what you’re doing, you’ll never run out of material.

    In contrast, if you never discover the principles behind the specific rules you’re commanded to obey, you’ll never feel secure in your craft or sullen art, and I indeed know successful writers who live in fear that they’ll never be able to duplicate their first and even second success. The fear comes because they’ve not learned the nature of literature, though they have polished their writing, in large part by memorizing a great many do’s and do not’s.

    I assure you that every single rule you’ll ever read has been successfully broken by writers whose books endure and will continue to endure. The people who memorize and compile these laundry lists, however, do not, for the most part, write durable literature.

    Timeless literature captures some aspect of the human condition — “the human heart,” as Faulkner called it — and the technical do’s and don’ts are and always will be secondary.


About The Author

The sawed-off shotgun of literary pulp.

8 Responses and Counting...

  • Nancy S. Thompson 09.15.2011

    Yeah, I don’t trust or believe in rules. Guidelines, perhaps, but not rules. They just beg to be broken. And while I do agree somewhat with a some of those rules, some are just plain illogical.

  • Hi Nancy. It’s nice to meet you, a fellow rule-breaker. I like your website.

    Thanks so much for dropping by.

  • […] I’m wary of the overly proscriptive, and this essay does have a little of that stench about it. Yet it’s so thoughtful and so […]

  • […] I’m wary of the overly proscriptive, and this essay does have a little of that stench about it. Yet it’s so thoughtful and so […]

  • Bless you for your concise and spot on list of senseless dos and don’ts. I’ve posted about the same thing, trying to explain the difference between descriptive (as in Aristotle describing what he discovered) and prescriptive. I’m still a bit wordy at this point, and have learned more than just (whoops, not supposed to write “just”) the hit list of that which holds us back.

    Why, just the other day I woke up…

  • Bless you, Cyd. And thank you.

  • It’s been beautiful weather here lately.
    I love ellipses and italics. I consider italics to be my much needed sarcasm font.
    And then she basically wandered off to take a nap…

  • Sweet dreams, baby.

    It’s good to hear from you. Thank you for dropping by.

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