“Rules of Writing” Redux

The Guardian, a British publication, has a series in which it asks famous (or at least published) authors of fiction to tell what their “rules for writing” are.

[None of them said, “no one-sentence paragraphs” or “keep your sentence’s subject and verb as close as possible,” although my English teacher from way back in 7th grade, the beloved Bessy Potter, had these among her basic rules of writing.  Yeah, I know, there’s a difference between rules of grammar and what The Guardian asked for; I just had to take the opportunity to honor Miss Potter.]

Among the authors who responded were Elmore Leonard, Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James, AL Kennedy, Hilary Mantel, Will Self, Michelle Paull, Michael Morpurgo, Rose Tremain, and Zadie Smith.  If you haven’t heard of some of them, it’s probably because you aren’t up on your British writers.  No harm, no foul.

You probably have heard about and may have read Elmore Leonard, author of many mysteries, several of which have become movies.  In other words he’s very successful, as well as being one of my favorite reads.  Terrific dialog, characters, and plots.  (Sorry, Bessy, about my egregious lack of subject and verb.)  The article lists his “Ten Rules,” most, if not all, of which are good advice, though only the eleventh having the general and perhaps eternal status of what I would call a “rule.”  Though, if having an eleventh rule in a list of ten isn’t breaking some sort of rule, I don’t know what is.

So, here is Elmore Leonard’s 11th Rule of Fiction Writing:  “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”  Now, that’s as close to a real rule as I’ve heard, because if what you write sounds like writing, the reader is too aware of you, the writer.  Write from inside or along side your characters’ mind, not from your own.  For example, try not to give your character, Joe the long-haul truck driver, complex sentences and/or multi-syllabic words unless he’s a Yale graduate or an autodidact or it’s an integral part of the story.  Gee, that sounds a bit like a rule, although it’s meant as a suggestion, which is very different.

Leonard’s “rules” include:  Never begin a book with weather; avoid prologues; only use “said” to attribute dialogue; never modify “said” with an adverb; avoid detailed description of characters, places, and things.  Plus a few other “rules”, the most widely known, I would guess, being to “leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”  (A good trick, if you can do it.)

Considering Leonard’s rules and the very different rules offered by the other writers polled by The Guardian, and the rules of so many other writers, I stand by the declaration made (arrogantly?) in the very first post on this blog/website, which is that There are no rules for writing fiction.  What The Guardian and others call “rules” are merely suggestions for the struggling writer-becoming-author to consider.  If we gathered and totaled these “rules” over the years, we would certainly reach a thousand, and many would contradict each other.  Consider them (those “rules” you run across), yes; necessarily follow them?, no.  Or, you will be weighted down, freighted, thinking about them rather than swimming down deep in your story where you ought to be, even in second and third drafts.  (I think I see Bessy up there on a cloud, scowling.)  Just another suggestion.

As always, I welcome thoughtful disagreement, as well as agreement, which need not be thoughtful.

4 thoughts on ““Rules of Writing” Redux”

  1. Rules make the world understandable.
    But is understanding always a good thing?
    Isn’t the world filled with confusion?
    Aren’t we all?
    And therefore (Rule n+1), the rules we write by should contradict each other so our writing can reflect the confusion of the world.

    Corollary to n+1, Leave the road and rules behind and wander in the woods

    1. George,
      Some say that love makes the world go round, others say it’s money, others say oil. I’ve even heard that peanut butter makes the world go round. Me? I think it’s a combination of peanut butter and confusion. Hey, it’s 2:58am. Think I’ll make myself a peanut butter & confusion sandwich.

      SK

  2. Other than being tagged with Tom Gould’s Rules of Fiction, which makes me me feel like my modest proposal is in the realm of Obamacare or the Buffet Rule, I appreciate your deft summary and caveats. Reading, as always, presents to the prepared mind as many successful evasions of the rules as it does unsuccessful fundamentalist followings (commercial success another thing entirely).

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