Rules For Writing: Beware The Laundry-List & Overly Prescriptive
  • There is a general formula (of sorts) to storytelling, but to be better understood, that formula is best presented in terms of principles, and not concretes.

    By concretes, I’m referring to these interminable lists of specifics we so often see, which when it comes to the art of story merely tell us what to do and what not to do, but never show us the reasons — i.e. they never give us the principle behind the concretes, as they also never provide us with the reasoning behind the prescriptive listings.

    The hallmark of good teaching is found in the explanation of deeper reasons. The ability to do this is the hallmark of someone who possesses a true grasp — someone who’s therefore a good teacher.

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

    “Do not 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 of your adverbs.”

    “Cut virtually all of your damn adjectives.”

    “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 the word would, except if you would project the future.”

    “Do not use italics for emphasis.”

    “In your dialogue tags, never say said John but always keep it John said,” say more than a few editors and writers.

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

    And so on, ad-infinitum.

    This method of teaching (if it can even be called that) ignores the method by which the human mind works — which is to say, by means of principles — and instead chooses to overload the brain with unintegrated rules, laundry-list demands, unexplained commands, all of which come without any deeper explication of fundamentals but are only command-and-control edicts you must obey, or else. And yet it’s only by grasping the fundamentals behind any given thing that people can grasp the full nature of whatever it is they’re doing.

    All of which is another way of saying that when humans are truly taught the reasons behind the rules and suggestions, humans are truly taught.

    If you grasp the nature of what you’re doing — if you grasp the reasons and principles at the base of what you’re doing — you’ll never run out of material. Ever.

    If, on the other hand, you never discover the principles behind the specific rules you’re commanded to obey, you’ll never feel secure in your craft and sullen art.

    Indeed I do personally know a number of successful writers who live in chronic fear that they’ll never be able to duplicate their first and even second successes. Their fear comes because they’ve not learned the nature of literature and the principles of storytelling and the reasons behind these principles, though they do, almost without exception, have technically polished writing styles — technically, I repeat — in large measure because they’ve memorized, via relentless hammering into the head in every writing class they’ve taken or writing book they’ve read, a great many do-and-do-not commands.

    I assure you that every single rule you’ll ever read has been successfully broken by writers whose books endure, and will endure. The people who memorize — and, even more, the people who compile — these boring laundry lists don’t (as a hard-and-fast rule) write durable literature.

    Timeless literature captures some aspect of the human condition — “the old verities of the human heart,” as William Faulkner unforgettably described it, in his unmatched Nobel Prize acceptance speech — and the technical do’s-and-don’ts are and always will be secondary, at best, just as they’ve always been so.

About The Author

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning at the core of my life.

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.

  • 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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