10 Rules For Writing (For Those Who Can’t Write)

The Guardian has polled writers for their ten rules of writing, as a “homage” to that wonderful stylist Elmore Leonard. – It’s quite interesting actually, reading Leonard’s own rules, how he keeps saying: do such and such, unless you’re actually a good writer, in which case you can get away with it. It’s as if Leonard started writing these rules based on his own narrow and desperate practice, only to suddenly realise that they were a lot of writers out there who were a helluva lot better than him.

Like all rules for writing, these lists make me feel strangely violent. – The thing is, it seems to me, with writing, doing certain things creates certain effects; it all depends what you’re aiming at; what you want your novel to sound like. Prescribing that certain things – like using adverbs; like having thick paragraphs of words (all the classics can fuck off then!!!!); like using any other words but said to introduce dialogue – are wrong seems to overlook the possibilities of the written form and to show an extraordinary ignorance of the manipulation of language which is at the heart of the craft. But of course, this is typical of almost all writers, who believe as a matter of course that the only way to write is the way they write.

Still, I thought it would be fun to go through the list, very slowly, and have a look at all this sage advice.

Elmore Leonard

The only rule I can bring myself to roughly agree with is the one about exclamation marks. This is only a personal preference though: I almost never use exclamation marks in my writing; – but I can see having lots of exclamation marks would create a certain effect, and if this is what you’re aiming at, then by all means use them.

The whole business of “said” I could write a 200-page monograph on, but – you’ll be pleased to hear – I shan’t. I vaguely thought I had a tendency towards “said” myself, but looking through some of my writing the other day I found myself using all kinds of words (“replied”, “asked”, “argued”, “suggested”) which will no doubt break the reader’s train of thought as he has to look them up in the dictionary.

A lot of Leonard’s rules seem to be based around the idea that dialogue should be used to create character. – Maybe he should become a playwright then!!!On the other hand, these rules aren’t much use if you don’t have much dialogue in your novel.

Diana Athill

“No inessential words” – for that simple, poetic prose which is the hallmark of every dreary novel you’re likely to read.

Anne Enright

Only bad writers think that their work is really good.”

Hmm. So, presumably, only those writers who think their work is bad are actually any good. This doesn’t say a lot about their literary judgement. One wonders how they ever get anywhere.

Jonathan Franzen

Never use the word “then” as a conjunction – we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.

That sounds like the kind of thing David Foster Wallace would say. – It had never really occurred to me before; for which reason I think it’s probably nonsense. (Technically, of course, and doesn’t imply a sequence and is being misused – so maybe DFW would be against it).

Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.

Again, I think we are exploring Frantzen’s own uncertainties and weaknesses.

The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than “The [sic] Meta­morphosis”.

This is one of those things that sounds good until you start examining it. (It’s called rhetoric – use it when necessary!!!).

Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

See above.

Esther Freud

Cut out the metaphors and similes.

I can’t employ them; therefore you shouldn’t.

Don’t wait for inspiration.

All the best works were written without it.

(And so on. – But you get the drift: conform to the same simple relentless dull style of every other worthless novelist. Don’t try anything with language that people might find pleasing; – words and sentences that give pleasure in themselves are somehow suspicious and we shouldn’t have anything to do with them.)

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2 thoughts on “10 Rules For Writing (For Those Who Can’t Write)

  1. 1. Never use polysyllabic words.

    2. Never use lush, flowery, blooming adjectives culled from the world of botany.

    3. Never use similes because it’s like climbing through a window when you could just use the door.

    Never use metaphors. The river must not be polluted with effluents.

    4. Never make lists of rules about writing because you’ll end up looking a frightful ass.

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