Amber Skye Forbes

Writing Words With the Tips of My Toes

My Least Favorite Writing Rules

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I’m trying my best to keep my blog from falling into the trap of giving out writing advice because, let’s be honest, a lot of writing blogs do that and what more could I add to that? Oh, certainly I doled out tips for cover art but that’s because not all writers are designers and I just happen to be a writer who is a designer/photographer. In any case, I was struggling trying to come up with something to write about because it is my goal to do a blog post a day. So Mariah Wilson, who is perhaps my biggest supporter and I am so grateful to have met her, gave me the idea to, well, write about my least favorite rules since a lot of writing blogs dole out rules to such an extent it seems you must follow them or else fail!

I think the reason I most like this prompt is not because we as writers are also told it’s okay to break rules when needed but because we don’t, as books like The Elements of Style and Elmore Leonard’s works are so pounded into our heads that they make breaking the rules seem taboo. Such works don’t deserve the praise they’re heaped with, even in academic settings. They will kill your writing.

I remember back when I first really began to learn how to write (about 1 million words ago) how I religiously followed every piece of writing advice out there. Now as a writer I have learned that trying to follow all the rules can kill your style. Oh, certainly there are fantastic rules out there that will save your writing, but there are some rules that are so silly that they need to be abolished and in their place you can put, “Just don’t overdo it. Like, you shouldn’t overdo anything in the first place.”

One writing rule I find so silly is this seeming hatred for passive voice. I think it’s silly there are editors who will explode upon seeing passive voice, not realizing passive voice can work for certain styles of writing. And I am an editor. If it works, it works. Don’t pop an aneurism just because you think it’s a supposed rule never allowed to be broken, even if it works so damn well for certain styles and voices. I think ‘He was killed’ sounds more chilling than ‘Someone killed him’ if I were asking you why I haven’t seen Bob in three days. Passive can leave your story open for more surprises. Bob may not have been killed by anyone at all. He could have spontaneously combusted, but because passive tells me he was killed, I’m more inclined, as a reader, to want to find out what killed him. I understand newbies use it as a crutch and perhaps they need to follow the rule initially, but once you’ve received that experience, the hatred against passive voice needs to die.

Another rule I hate is that there are writers who seem to believe adverbs shouldn’t exist at all, that wherever there is an adverb, we need to, instead, re-write in such a way that shows. I’ll be honest that as writers, we sometimes need to shut up and just come out and say it. I will admit I am guilty of this, but I think I’m specifically referring to dialogue in this case. Adverbs exist for a reason. We don’t need to shun them from the English language just because verbs are often better than adverbs. Adverbs can have their uses in dialogue when it’s annoying as both a reader and writer that everything needs to be constantly shown when we want the character to portray a certain tone. A novel that is just shown can become long and dull, just as a book that is only told lacks flavor.

Now it’s obvious advice to find balance, but some writers are so convinced that adverbs should not exist period that I’ll read an entire page of dialogue wondering what the characters are doing as they’re speaking because there are no tags what-so-ever and so much white space I feel like some spice needs to be added to the dialogue by at least telling us or showing or whatever how the characters are reacting to this dialogue or even what the tone is. I would rather you tell me through adverbs that the character is speaking sternly instead of telling me nothing at all, or instead of showing this sternness through two sentences of unnecessary description. Readers aren’t even going to care that they were told when someone spoke sternly. Now if you’re overusing adverbs, readers will begin to notice, but otherwise, using a few adverbs here and there to get to the point is not going to kill your story. I promise.

A third rule I hate is split infinitives. This is the most ridiculous rule ever. Professors even at my university seem to hate them. When I worked in the writing center I would secretly tell students it was a stupid rule but they had to follow it anyway. It’s stupid because you can read a split infinitive and it doesn’t sound wrong, but you spend forever wringing your hands when professors tell you it’s wrong and they can’t even explain.

We’ve been splitting infinitives for centuries and are only shunning them because a dead language called Latin doesn’t do it, and English is based off Latin, but English is English, not Latin. What sounds so wrong with this sentence: He used to secretly put rat poison in his grandmother’s cereal. This sentence can be stylistically effective and no one is wringing their hands trying to figure out what it’s saying. Oh, sure, I can say he used to put rat poison in his grandmother’s cereal, but adding secretly implies a more sinister air. But whatever. Split infinitives or not. It’s your writing.

There are a myriad of other rules that I can’t stand, but I could write an entire book. I just want to replace all the writing books I’ve ever read with this instead: Just don’t overdo anything and know when it works and when it doesn’t work. There are no rules once you’ve learned them because rules imply you have to follow them and breaking them is a cardinal sin.

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One comment on “My Least Favorite Writing Rules

  1. Thomas Weeks
    April 2, 2013

    I think writing that relies too much on rules sounds flat. I’ve read some things that were so boring, yet were perfectly “correct.” I say if it works for you, do it!

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This entry was posted on April 2, 2013 by .
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