Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Five Writing Rules I Take As The Gospel

Any industry you get into, there are rules. Sometimes, you have to break the rules and blaze your own path; that's where innovation comes in. Other times, there's a reason why certain rules are in place - because they work.

As I've been working on my manuscripts, I've also been researching the craft of writing and studying the business of publishing. And of course...I've come across rules. Lots and lots of rules. The trick has been to weed out the ones I think are the exception and the ones I can (and should) bend (hell, even break, but that's another blog.)

So, here are the five writing rules that I will not break. Most of the time anyway:

1) Write
Seems like a no-brainer, right? If you want to be a writer, you must write.  To not do so falls under the "professional student" category for me - spending untold years and dollars collecting every professional degree known to man, yet never get an actual job.

It's no different with the writing profession - taking every writing class the local Learning Annex has on its schedule, reading every book on the craft you can find on Barnes and Noble's dusty shelves and talking about writing to anyone who'll listen.

In short, doing everything but actually writing.

Full disclosure, I've taken one writing course, will take another this summer, have read one book on the craft, one on the business and find lots of helpful information in the pages of "Writer's Digest."  But I also write - every single day.

2) Read
Stephen King (among others) says new writers will likely write what they enjoy reading.  I love suspense stories in the vein of Mary Higgins Clark, so that's the bent my stories take.  Coincidentally, I've only read two Stephen King books, but I digress. 

Reading as much as you can get your hands on will only improve your writing. For one, it can help you separate good writing from bad writing. Two, it gives you something to shoot for in your own writing (while cultivating your own voice, of course), three, it inspires you to write, four, it serves as a roadmap of sorts for where you might be trying go. Seeing how the writer set up themes, plots, characters, description, etc. can point you in the right direction. Mary Higgins Clark learned how to write mysteries by studying Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca." If that isn't a reason to pick up the reading habit, I don't know what is

3) If You're Bored, So's the Reader
As writers, we believe every word we've written is perfection and we'll stab anyone in the eye who tells us to cut even a comma from our prose.
Hard as it is, we have to get over that possessiveness.
It can be tough to hit that delete key and wipe away hours of blood, sweat and tears. However, the whole point of a good story is to keep the action moving and soliloquies, monologues and waxing poetic about the back story or details of a room can bring everything to a grinding halt.
I went through this myself with my current manuscript. I couldn't figure out why this particular scene wasn't working until I realized it went on about two pages longer than it should have. The scene is much more crisp and I can't even remember what that those long-forgotten words are.
If your own writing bores you, three guesses as to how the reader feels.

4) Kill the Adverbs
I came to this one late in life. It seems so descriptive to tack on adverbs (i.e. the words ending in "ly.") We want our characters to "agree reluctantly," "jump quickly," and "hastily add." When they're speaking, we want them to "sneer," "spit," and "pant." It feels boring to only use "said" as attribution, right?

In his brilliant classic, "On Writing," Stephen King says the reason writers (himself included) use adverbs, is because "I am afraid the reader won’t understand me if I don’t. I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing...Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation."

This is one of those bendy rules; sometimes there's no way around using an adverb. Just don't use them as a crutch.

5) Don't Use The Same Word in the Same Sentence/Paragraph
Here's my extreme analogy:

"Dr. John Smith, M.D."

Duh. M.D. means, "medical doctor," so why restate it? Unless of course people don't know what M.D. stands for, which is another problem entirely.

Another example:

"This is a great opportunity to learn more about all of the opportunities available to us.

Of course words like "the" and "a" are exempt from this one, but for the most part, using the same word over and over is a disservice to your thesaurus (which all writers should be living and dying by).

And if you see I've broken this rule, feel free to shame me.

BONUS:

Abolish "that" and "very"
Go through and eliminate every unnecessary "that."

Now do the same with every "very."

Amazing how much sharper the writing sounds.

Of course, kind of like the adverb thing, sometimes, you can't get around this one. Well, you can get around "very" without too much trouble, but "that" has its use on occasion. But for the most part, it can be banished and no one will know any different.

Alright, back to writing.

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