Odd Numbered List of Writing Rules

21 Jul

I have to confess that every time I see an article entitled “Seven Grammar Rules You Should Be Breaking” or “Five Steps To More Engaging Writing” I feel an urge to run for the metaphorical hills, find a nice dry cave, and become a hermit. I’d spend the rest of my days cackling at passing birds and developing a reputation for either madness or genius, safe from the tyranny of The Rules. It’s not the Incessant Capitals, nor the odd-numbered lists. It’s not even the likelihood that those articles will contain so much complex jargon that I’ll have developed a passionate and burning disinterest by the end of the first paragraph. No, it’s the veritable army of writing “gurus”, brandishing red pens and an absolute certainty that they know best.

It’s no secret that writers spend at least 50% of our time thinking “I could have written that better”.  As Romulus Linney put it, “There are three basic urges. Food, sex, and the urge to rewrite someone else’s play.” You’ve possibly thought it already in reading this, “bit ranty”, “not gotten to the point yet”. My point is: I have been writing for 14 years, and I’m not sure of much, really. I’m sure that I know excellent writing when I see it – and that bad writing is even easier to spot. I’m sure that most writing – including most of mine – occupies a murky middle ground. The good enough. The it’ll do.

What alarms me though is the way we try and terrify any new writer that dares put fingers to keyboard, and dream of a byline, a book spine, an author’s credit, their name on a poster. When I was starting out the established writers were either encouraging or indifferent. Some offered words of praise, some would be willing to give a serious critique of my work if I asked for it. As soon as I had work out there in the world, critics oozed praise, or harangued and decried.

But at no point did anyone hand me a rule book. Or insist that there was “one way” of writing. At most, writers would offer a “this worked for me” or “I learned this the hard way” anecdote. If I had been assaulted with endless litanies of dos and don’ts, checklists, taboos and best practices, as new writers are today, I doubt I’d be a writer. I’d probably have opted for marine biology after all.

It also seems to me absurd that people would impose the same writing rules on people writing novels as they do on those writing advertisements. A legal document must be clear and precise, and so must a poem, but the writing of the two is as different as chocolate and cheese.

How should you write? I’m not going to tell you that. But what I am going to tell you  is that if you want to write, you should. And that the only way you will get better is by writing, and sharing your writing with people. I worry that a generation of new writers are caught in an eternal internet loop of “9 Things Your Agent Should Tell You” and may never get to experience the thrill of:

“The End”


2 Responses to “Odd Numbered List of Writing Rules”

  1. Mandy Collins July 22, 2013 at 9:33 am #

    Love it. It’s all so true. And yet I find myself reading – and sharing – those same lists. Mea culpa. This piece is a good reminder.

  2. m3g5n July 29, 2013 at 11:10 pm #

    Reblogged this on sunshinedistillery and commented:
    This is exactly what I’ve been trying to say all year. Don’t make excuses, just write. 🙂

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