Having started spending some time on WordPress, it has come to my attention that there are several blogs which like to occasionally post about the “rules” of writing that every writer should follow. I have no problem with the idea of set rules for writing—after all, I am a stalwart supporter of proper grammar—but there are some cases where these “rules” hurt or detract from your writing voice. So my biggest rule for writing rules is that no rule should rule your writing (did that make your head hurt too?)
If you Google search “rules for writing,” one of the top links you may be given is related to Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing. To be fair, I have never read the full work, and he may very well include a caveat tackling the very issue I raise now, but either way I’m going to use him as a sort of sacrificial lamb here. Also note that I have no opinion of Mr. Leonard as an author, so please do not misconstrue this is a personal attack.
Anyway, here are the 10 rules for writing, according to Mr. Leonard, based on an article by The Guardian:
- Never open a book with weather
- Avoid prologues
- Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin
- Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose
- Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”
- Use regional dialect sparingly
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
- Don’t go into great detail describing places and things
- Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them
- My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
One reason I chose Mr. Leonard’s rules is also because I see a lot of these repeated in other sets of rules. No adverbs, only use “said,” and avoid heavy detail should all be fairly recognizable to other writers who are familiar with these lists. My response to these rules, or any rule of writing for that matter, is, “But what if I want to?” What if I like long, florid descriptions of characters and places? What if I think adverbs are fun and exist for a reason? What if I, as a writer, get bored with constantly saying the word “said” and want to use “he droned” or some other dialogue tag? And I can tell all of you right now that I very much enjoy using prologues!
Unless you are writing strictly to make money (ha!), then the person you should be writing for is you. Every writer has their own voice, whether it is of Hemingway brevity or Hugo eloquence, and that voice should be used with pride. Further down the line, editors or publishers may try to change certain aspects of your writing, but hopefully they chose to work with you because they already like what you bring to the table.
Don’t get me wrong, you need to be humble and willing to accept critique when given. And there are rules for writing which are good to follow: read it aloud to yourself; have someone else read it; if you’re lost, retrace your steps to where you went wrong; be fluid and don’t anchor yourself to an idea if it isn’t working; reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite, repeat. Things that are more akin to advice than rules should be taken happily. But especially early on in the writing process, or when it comes to stylistic choice, keep in mind that writing is an art. Do not allow your art to be censored because of another artist’s rules. Your heart and soul are bared in your writing, so it should be your voice that screams it to the world. Create something that makes you happy, and if someone tells you it is wrong, consider what they say and what might be valid about their opinion, and then promptly do whatever you feel is right.
Then again, maybe I shouldn’t write this kind of post until after I get published. Oh well!
Also, if you’re interested in that article from The Guardian that I mentioned above, which features writing rules (most of which are the good kind) from authors such as Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, and Helen Dunmore, check it out here: Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.
What’s your opinion on rules for writing? Do you think Mr. Leonard is right and I’m an unpublished dunce? Let me know, comment below! Just don’t use any adverbs.