Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Rules of Writing

If you spend any time hanging around a group of writers (which is kind of weird, if you ask me, but whatever!), you'll probably hear some kind of debate revolving around writing rules. There are umpteen different rules that writers are advised to follow, and any decent and/or experienced writer will likely be able to spout a half-dozen of them off without much thought. Oft times, these rules even contradict each other.

One thing you'll also hear is how there are no rules in writing.

So which is it?

I'll admit, I'm a rule kind of guy. I took one of those personality tests, and was rated an INTJ. If you read about such a personality, you'll find that INTJs tend to like rules. Or, at least, rules that serve a useful purpose. So, little surprise that I rather enjoy writing rules.

Yet, I totally understand that there are no rules in writing as well. The problem comes in the word "rule". Because the "rules of writing" aren't so much rules in the, "if you don't follow them, the world will end as we know it" kind of rule. No, the rules are more or less suggestions or guidelines of the kinds of things to watch out for, but go ahead and break all you want if you so choose.

Let's think back to elementary school, when you were learning the rules for spelling and reading. For example, you probably learned that the letter A makes the short sound, such as in the word "ran". You did a ton of worksheets that illustrate this rule. Sure enough, every word you had to read and/or spell followed this rule. Cat. Bat. Sat. Tan. Van. But then, the next week, you get this word: Cane. Suddenly, the rule fails.

Was the rule wrong? No, not exactly. The rule was really a stepping stone. A way to simplify teaching. And once you grasped that concept, you could start learning the exceptions to the rules. You build, until one day, you can read just about anything without even really thinking about the rules involved.

That's how I see the rules of writing. They are stepping stones. Ways of introducing writers to concepts so that they can improve their writing. But as they improve, those rules will become less and less absolute, until the day comes along that you really don't care about the rules. You'll break those rules at will, even though a good percentage of the time, it has become natural to follow them...or not!

Let's take one of the favorites: adverbs are bad. This rule is often grilled into us, and we become hyperaware of each and every adverb we write and read, cringing in horror.

Yet, what's the truth about this rule? Adverbs aren't bad. They serve a very useful purpose in writing. Their overuse could be a sign of poor writing. But their overuse could be a sign of an intentional writing style. So, why the rule? Because it makes a writer aware of a tendency to rely on adverbs where a stronger verb could be used instead, as just one example.

"He ran quickly to the car."

In this example, the need for the adverb is questionable. Running implies a certain level of quickness. So, adding the adverb is redundant. Or, quite possibly, it is a good opportunity to replace the "ran quickly" with a single, more-powerful verb.

"He darted off to the car."

But there are plenty of places an adverb adds to a sentence.

"The dog pounced on me, enthusiastically."

I don't claim this is the greatest prose in the world, but here the use of the adverb adds something that is lose without it.

So what's the point? The point is, a rule of writing may be useful for learning, much like how knowing an A makes the short sound...except when it doesn't. Once you understand the rule, and understand when the rule does or doesn't matter, you can just forget it. Break it all you want!

And one caveat to all of this. People learn in different ways. Some never need these kinds of rules. They just naturally write well. They are blessed.

1 comment:

Keith Cronin said...

Sorry, but you're just not embracing what art is: an opportunity for self-expression.

A "rule" like "adverbs are bad" is no more useful than telling a painter "don't use too much red." What if the piece NEEDS red paint?

Art is about choices, not rules.

Rules may help you learn other, more finite topics, but art is about taking responsibility for your OWN choices, and simplistic rules will NOT get you closer to the level of self-expression you seek.