Writing Rules Come in Lists of Ten. Because Eleven Doesn’t Sound as Cool.

Recently on the Daily Post, I read Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. I don’t know why I bothered. I’ve read other lists of writing rules. They’re not uncommon. Quite often it is specifically a list of ten rules. I’ve never seen any list that was of any real use. This was no exception. I’ve never read any of Leonard’s work, so he may be a brilliant novelist. This list, however, is not brilliant. Among the rules are these:

 

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

 

Forget my thoughts on the subject for a moment and just consider just how many authors of renown would tell you to ignore these suggestions. Do these ‘rules’ really describe every worthy book you’ve ever read? Do they even describe the majority? I found this list a bit insulting, not only as a writer, but also as a reader. This list of dos and don’ts, nope, wait a second, this list of don’ts can’t be applied to every author and every story. That’s ridiculous.

Of course I read the comments others left to see if anyone else shared my view. To my delight, several of them seemed to agree with me. So, of course I decided to leave a comment of my own:

 

I am not a famous author. I am a self published Kindle author that no one has ever heard of. But here’s my list of writing rules.

1. Don’t limit yourself.

 

That’s my list in its entirety. No matter what it is you’re writing, you should be much more concerned with what you should do than what you shouldn’t. When I read lists of writing rules, I notice that almost all of them tell you what not to do. Not many tell you what you should do. Granted, it’s easier to tell people what mistakes to avoid. What rules can you possibly give to help someone create? I’ll give it a try just to say I did.

1. Believe in your characters. If they’re not real to you, then they won’t be real at all.

2. Don’t be afraid to change direction. What you first envisioned is not necessarily what the end result has to be.

Oh god, I have to stop there. How can I live with myself, knowing that I can write that kind of tripe? It’s so saccharine and affirming. Perhaps I should give up on novels and write greeting cards instead. The sad thing is, however trite these two pieces of advice sound, they happen to be true. There isn’t any other way to provide writing advice intended to inspire creativity. Not in a short list of rules, anyway. A book on the subject might work. I’m glad that I’m neither capable nor qualified to write it.

Okay, so a list of inspirational rules is a waste of time. That doesn’t make lists of restrictive rules any better though. The impression I get from them is that they are not so much rules to help writers; they are lists of pet peeves. They are just grievances that a person has against certain books. Don’t use certain kinds of words. Don’t use certain kinds of sentences. Don’t say any more than you have to. Don’t color outside the lines. Don’t forget which fork to use. Don’t sing off key.

Myself, I’m not interested in making my writing seem professional. Wow, that was an arrogant sentence. I bet I can offer more ego at the same time that I redeem myself though. Here it goes. I am not interested in writing a flawless novel. I am interested only in writing a worthy story. I refuse to write with the goal of avoiding offense, even if it’s only offense of a grammatical or structural sort. I will break any rule that anyone sets if I think it’s appropriate to the story that I’m writing. Hm. Now that I think about it, I’m only speaking for myself and that may not mean much. Let me refer to other writers instead. I have read many wonderfully fulfilling stories that break Mr. Leonard’s rules. Or the rules on any other list for that matter.

Can I give you any examples? No. Find your own examples. I’m not being lazy. I refuse to give evidence for this claim only because any book I cite, no matter how well respected, will also be evidence against my claim for a lot of people. I want to make a general point about writing, not debate the merits of any specific works. There isn’t a single piece of work that everyone can agree is worthy. Readers are as individual and opinionated as writers.

Now there’s an idea. I’ve read plenty of rules for writers. Why not a list of rules for readers? Reading is a skill, arguably an art form, of its own. I believe that because, in spite of being a writer, I am also an accomplished reader. And I happen to know a lot of other well read and intelligent individuals. So let me see if I can tap into our collective wisdom and offer advice to other readers.

1. Reading can require patience. There are many books and stories that take their time getting to the point. If you don’t have the attention span for that, then develop it.

2. You don’t have to finish every book. In spite of the advice in rule number one, some books aren’t lengthy or descriptive; they are boring. If you’ve struggled through eighty pages and you haven’t read anything worthwhile, it’s acceptable to put that book aside in favor of another.

3. What you’ve read is not the same as what someone else has, even if you’ve just read the same book. That’s the power of literature. Every art form speaks to every individual differently. For fiction this is particularly true.

4. Read more than one kind of story. It’s all right to have a favorite genre, but don’t rest there. No matter how much you love mysteries, romances, westerns or science fiction, try something else every so often. Expand your horizons. (This last rule is included at the insistence of a few family members.)

Is there anything I left out? Should I have said more? Yes to the first, no to the second. It would be easy to craft a longer list of rules. I need at least six more to give it the lovely round number that most lists of writing rules have. But this list isn’t meant to be taken seriously. It’s satire. I’m trying to make the point that lists of literary rules are silly. They are not entirely pointless. Good advice is good advice even when it’s numbered. My point is not that anyone as a writer or reader should ignore the lists. Just don’t take them seriously.

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2 comments

  1. You ARE a writer. I thought that list was stupid too, especially since the author of them didn’t follow them. Maybe he was trying to trip up the competition before it ever made it to market?

    1. Thank you, Marilyn. I certainly do my best. As I said in the opening, I’ve never read Elmore Leonard’s work. I know who he is, but I haven’t gotten around to reading any of it yet. It doesn’t surprise me that he didn’t follow these rules. How could he? When I started writing seriously, I realized that I was doing a lot of things that weren’t ‘correct’. So I started to pay attention to other writers’ violations of the rules. It happens all the time. Anyone who tells a story worthwhile does it because they can hear the story. You can’t put a filter between yourself and the source.

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