Break These Five Writing Commandments

Pearls of popular wisdom tend to persist for a reason. In fact, I’m conveniently co-opting my favorite self-negating aphorism right now: Rules are made to be broken. 

The particular pearls in question are commonly found on Internet writing communities and on the first pages of old composition notebooks, and you should feel free to break them when necessary. They are:

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5. Look, reading is a good thing, but it’s too easy to take this black-and-white declaration way too far. Some writers (like me) can use this dictum as an excuse to never start writing. (“What? Spending five years reading in my genre is research, hater.”) And sometimes, you have to make a simple choice about what’s the best use of your time—and when reading loses, that’s okay.

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4. This one makes the rounds on writing forums every couple of months, and each time, I see more and more community members take issue with its basic premise, and rightly so: Pretending that craft “doesn’t matter a damn” as long as you can get your characters from Point A to Point B as inventively as possible doesn’t mean editors, critics and readers won’t notice it.

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3. Being pulled along by your prose and riding wave after wave of inspiration is a fantastic feeling. It’s almost like writer nirvana, mostly because it doesn’t happen that often. Working writers have a job to do, whether it’s turning in freelance assignments on time, writing ad copy for management committee review or some other deadline- and quality-driven scenario, and they can’t afford to wait for the writing equivalent of high tide. Or, to fight adage with adage: “You can’t wait for inspiration; you have to go after it with a club.” -Jack London

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2. When I was a college writing tutor, I told every student that under virtually no circumstances were they allowed to end sentences with prepositions. As a business writer, I sometimes encounter older colleagues who resolutely maintain that there should be a double space between every sentence, or that”over” should never be employed to emphasize a large number (e.g., “Over three million people attended the event.”) Here’s the thing: These precious grammatical precepts that we all hold dear (I still twitch a little when I see sentences that end in “to”) are very much matters of style, not hard and fast rules. Passive voice is sometimes okay! Unfortunately, “irregardless” is a word! Splitting infinitives wasn’t done in Latin, but it can be done in English. Et cetera. To see more sacred grammar cows bite the dust, check out Grammar Girl’s Top Ten Grammar Myths.

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1. Fewer writing sins will be pounced on in workshop faster than a piece of writing that’s more telling than showing. This is a good thing, as it’s spared everyone a lot of boring exposition in favor of active, emotive writing. But telling shouldn’t be verboten. Even the best writers do an awful lot of telling. In fact, in his book To Show and to Tell, acclaimed literary essayist Phillip Lopate says:

I would argue that literary nonfiction is the surely the one area in which it is possible to “tell.” In personal essays and memoirs, we must rely on the subjective voice of the first-person narrator to guide us, and if that voice never explains, summarizes, interprets, or provides a larger sociological or historical context for the material, we are in big trouble.

Glutton for punishment? Check out Henry Miller’s 11 writing commandments from BrainPickings.org.

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