Rules. Writing teachers love to sling them around, and writers love to cling to them. Maybe it’s because creative writing is such a slippery and chameleonic undertaking that we’d like to believe there are some dependable guidelines we can trust. But while writing rules can be good starting points for avoiding common mistakes, they all have their exceptions. Here we explore some important loopholes to the old saws of the writing world.
1. Show, don’t tell.
This is, without a doubt, the most over-invoked piece of writing advice of all time. A student in one of my classes recently asked me what this actually meant, and I had to admit that when you boil it down, it’s a pretty useless rule. In its most basic sense it means “describe and give details, rather than just stating what happened.” My student pointed out that one of the pieces we had just read for class was primarily explanation, not sensory description, even though it was about cooking. But she and my other students still enjoyed the piece—what was going on there? Like any writing “rule,” “show, don’t tell” has its exceptions, but the truth is that these exceptions are almost as common as the instances in which a writer should be “showing.” Most pieces of writing involve constant alternation between summary or exposition and “in-scene” writing (where all that great description, figurative language, and detail comes into play). When we focus too much on “showing” instead of “telling” we risk overloading our prose with unnecessary descriptors, or devoting excessive page space to something that would be better dealt with in a few sentences of summary.
2. You should only be a writer if you can’t bear to do anything else.
This classic rule goes wrong by assuming that being a writer and doing other things is an either/or proposition, or that full-time professional writers are the only writers who produce great work. Why not be a writer and do something else? We’d gain a lot of fascinating insights as a society if a healthy portion of our engineers, factory workers, long-haul truckers, and preschool teachers cultivated their creative writing abilities and used them to tell the stories of their lives. A great deal of interesting writing comes from people who have chosen to do something else, but have chosen to write as well. For those who would protest that a regular job leaves no time for writing, keep in mind that not everyone has to write a book to be a writer—if all you produce in your entire life is a handful of beautiful essays, the world is still a better place for your contribution.
3. Write what you know.
Some of you, no doubt, are living exciting lives—rescuing bear cubs from burning forests, climbing Mt. Everest twice in one year, or inventing a cold fusion device in your basement. To you I say, please write what you know. But the rest of us need another approach. Sure, there are plenty of wonderful books out there that are touching and nuanced accounts of the common upheavals of life: illness, death, divorce, and so on. But those are not the only things one can write about, and if your goal is to publish what you write, you make it that much harder on yourself by diving into an area that’s already flooded with great work. Instead of writing what you know, consider writing about what interests you—picking a topic and devoting yourself to finding out more about it through research. Susan Orlean didn’t write about Rin Tin Tin because she met him in person, and Erik Larson didn’t write The Devil in the White City because he had such a great time at the Chicago World’s Fair. These authors saw an interesting story and wanted to tell it. Even if you personally don’t have anything more exciting going on in your day than eight hours at a desk, you can step outside the bounds of your own experience with a research-based writing project (and keep in mind that this project could be an essay, rather than an entire book). Of course there’s a catch—writing a research-based piece is a lot of work, and at some point you probably will need to leave the confines of your local coffee shop to do some on-the-ground research or interviews. But “write about what you love and are willing to devote time to investigating” is a much better prompt for starting a project than “write what you know.”
4. Don’t use the passive voice.
As this is the most grammar-oriented item on the list, you may remember it from your middle or high school English class, rather than a writing class. And while passive voice is problematic in a lot of cases, it’s great in others, and for the same reason in both circumstances—passive voice obscures who is doing the actions of your sentence, or the presence or lack of intention behind those actions. So consider a scene that contains some mystery: “We walked into the house. The furniture had been overturned, the carpet was covered in mud, and a bottle of wine had been smashed against the wall.” Who did the damage? If the author knows, he or she isn’t telling yet, and there’s some great tension as a result. The active version of this sentence—“Someone had overturned the furniture, covered the carpet in mud, and smashed a bottle of wine against the wall”—also carries a slightly different meaning: it subtly implies that all of these things were done intentionally, when in fact they may have been the side effects of some other series of events. Passive sentences shouldn’t be categorized as problem sentences; like exclamation points or adverbs, they are writing tools that can be effective when used sparingly and correctly.
5. Use interesting verbs.
Precise and unusual verbs can be great–unless you’re writing a dialogue tag (the little “he said” or “she asked” that comes immediately before or after a line of dialogue). While creative verbs are desirable almost anywhere else in your writing, in dialogue tags they are distractions, and almost invariably sound awkward. A tag like “she shrieked” or “he groused,” or, worse yet, “she smiled,” detracts from the dialogue, rather than adding to it (and can one really “smile” a word without being a ventriloquist?). Dialogue tags should use only “said” for the same reason a diamond necklace should be showcased on black velvet, not rainbow brocade—you want your dialogue tags to provide a simple and elegant background for your sparkling dialogue, rather vying with it for the reader’s attention. Adverbs don’t belong in dialogue tags either, for the same reason (she said sternly). And while some may argue that “just use said” has become a rule in and of itself, I still meet plenty of writers who use “creative” dialogue tags and tell me that a writing teacher at some point in their life recommended that they do so.
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