Monday, June 07, 2010

How Important Are Those "Writing Rules"?


Two weeks ago on an author loop a question arose about "The Rules." Are there too many writing rules? Can they be broken? Does keeping them assure you'll one day be published? I particularly liked J. Mark Bertrand's response. (Mark will be appearing on Forensics and Faith in a few weeks to tell us about writing his novel, Back on Murder, a well-written police procedural.) I'm running Mark's response with his permission.

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Keeping the rules won't get you published. It won't guarantee you'll write a good book, either. A sentence can be grammatical without being eloquent or even interesting, and the same goes for a novel. The real problem with the rules isn't how many there are. It's all the weight they're expected to carry.

My pet theory goes something like this. If you're learning your craft primarily through reading and writing, then you're absorbing a lot of this stuff without realizing it. (Just as you acquired a lot of your language skills without meaning to.) Dipping into a how-to book or attending a class can really help you codify this knowledge, and even fill in some gaps. But if you're trying to learn to write PRIMARILY through the how-to stuff, and not reading deeply or widely enough, not writing enough bad prose to get to the good, then yes, the rules are going to function like so much dead weight.

And what are the rules, anyway? Efforts to explain why the writing of some earlier era worked. Percy Lubbock tries to explain why a Henry James novel is so good, and we end up with the dictum "show, don't tell." Go read Henry James, though, and you'll come away thinking he breaks the rule his writing invented. The point is, the rules are the result of somebody reading a lot of good books (or bestselling books) and trying to deduce what they have in common, then passing that knowledge onto you second-hand. If you're serious about your craft, why not get it first hand? Do that, and the supplemental stuff will actually be more helpful to you, not less.

-- J. Mark Bertrand
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Do you agree?

3 comments:

Daniel Smith said...

Oh, I definitely agree. Though if there is a corollary to Mark's theory it's this: most writers need a good dose of both in some quantity or ratio that is unique to the writer (depending on age, experiences, the genre they are writing in, etc.). There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how to learn how to write well. It’s an individual journey for each of us.

Nicole said...

Wholeheartedly, unabashedly, and infinitely. So there to the adverb rule. ;)

Ane Mulligan said...

I agree, actually. The principles of good writing are there because they work, but any time we become pharisaical about rules or guidelines, we lose the music of writing.

I like what Mark said about absorbing good story-telling skills through reading. He's absolutely write. Pun intended. ;o)