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Are you fed up with grammarians and critiquers who constantly tell you don't do that, do this?
But like everything in life, rules exist to navigate us to our particular destination.
I'm certain most of you have grown weary of the following:
• Never begin a sentence with And, But, or Because
• Never end a sentence with a preposition such as with or of
• Avoid these modifiers: very, more, quite, like
• Avoid "to be" verbs: be, is, are, am, were, was, been, being
• "Show" don't "Tell"
• Write in active voice (AV), not in passive voice (PV). For example:
I lost my drivers license. (AV)
My drivers license was lost [by me]. (PV) (See page 61 of Style1.)
• Avoid overuse of pronouns such as he and she
Rules sometimes confuse us, give us a headache, cause us to open a window and pitch our computers down two flights of stairs. It's not that rules are meant to self-impose or inflict someone's superior ego. It's just that there are so many of them. Even if we meticulously follow each and every one, critiquers will continue to find errors in our writing. With all the well-meaning restrictions, the writing process really does tempt you to open that window.
Here's what many people don't tell you—
Rules are important, but never more important than a good story. A good storyteller can break four out of ten rules and still have an audience so captivated that most readers won't even notice the infractions. The story plot is tight, characters well-rounded, and scenes so action-packed that no one bothers to count the four pronouns used in a single paragraph or the split infinitives.
If no one has ever shared the secret, let me be the first: It's all about the story.
Writing is more about good storytelling. When written with consistency, balance, well-developed characters who are flawed, even unlikeable—but convincingly so, you can keep a reader turning the page until The End. However, a good writer gives a great deal of thought to bending and breaking the rules with calculated precision.
About a year ago, in disgust I shadowboxed imaginary foes and pushed away from my computer. There was a war going on inside me and I wanted to hit someone, anyone, punch them right in the face, throw a book or two at any and everyone that represented the publishing world.
In all my madness, stubbornness wouldn't free me of my need to write. So, I pulled one book after another from my library. I even dug into classics and thumbed through them for hours. In a fit of rage, mainly because none of the books proved helpful, I pulled recent publications off the shelves. They included writers such as: Tami Hoag, Judith McKnaught, Sandra Brown, John Grisham, Toni Morrison, Mary Proulx, Tolstoy, Hemmingway, Steinbeck,Twain. Unsatisfied, I flipped through English books I studied in school—those English books that have about 30 or more stories and poems and plays inside that you're required to read and analyze.
Know what I found?
There wasn't one writer that obeyed all the rules. Not one.
It dawned on me that I couldn't use any of these writers as an example to write well. I toyed with the idea that maybe my collection of stories wasn't good enough. After all, too many of the writers used passive voice, or used "had had" (which I hate), opened their chapters with "to be" verbs and threaded them throughout their entire book.
Then, I found something I didn't expect. (I really do mean for you to pause after that comma.) Since I had read most of these books through and through, I realized they all had one thing in common. The writers told great stories.
So, what are we to make of all the rules?
First, know the rules.
I know what you're thinking. You're ahead of me, aren't you? Rules are made to be broken. You're right. They are. Everyone breaks them. But the most important thing to remember is that you must know the rules before you take the liberty of breaking them. We tread dangerous waters when we write without any regard to what is acceptable. This carefree style of writing will only disappoint you and foil your attempts to support yourself as a writer.
Second, you must develop a clear understanding as to why the rules exist in the first place.
For example, rules are simply trying to unveil one important fact: you're breaking the rules too often. Repetitively breaking the rules will make your manuscript sound flat. Don't believe me, take another look at that chapter someone just critiqued for you. Prove me wrong.
Here is an example from my manuscript entitled, Red Satin Ribbons:
Two open suitcases sat near the door. Curious, she leaned forward. On top lay a pair of shorts, a wool Christmas sweater, blue jeans, and two sleeveless shells. She chewed on a broken fingernail and wondered where she'd decided to go. She didn’t remember planning a trip and didn’t feel like traveling even if she had. When she relaxed on her pillow, she caught glimpse of the damaged wallpaper. Melba gasped. Who would . . . ? Then she remembered. She sunk in bed, closed her eyes, and covered half her face with the sheets.
The critiquer's comment: Lots of "she" starts.
After confirming that I had overused "she" NINE times, I revised the paragraph as follows:
Two open suitcases sat near the door. Curious,
she Melba leaned forward. On top lay a pair of shorts, a wool Christmas sweater, blue jeans, and two sleeveless shells. She chewed on a broken fingernail and wondered w Uneven fingernails scaled over her bottom lip. Where had she 'd decided to go? She Melba didn’t remember planning a trip and didn’t feel like traveling even if she had. When she relaxed on her Her back hit the pillow. , she caught glimpse of the A glimpse of damaged wallpaper made Melba gasp. Melba gasped. Who would . . . ? Then she remembered. She sunk in bed, closed her eyes, and covered half her face with Shame and horror sunk pressed her body deeper between the sheets.
So, I ask you: Is the overuse of pronouns a valid rule? You bet it is.
Third, when deliberately breaking the rule, give meticulous thought as to how many times you plan to do so. As I've said before, break the rule too often, and you run the risk of losing your reader. Pay close attention to this warning.
Fourth, listening and reading are essential to becoming a good writer.
You must become a better student by listening to good advice and reading good books. Many of us want to venture into writing by doing it our way, regardless to the advice of grammarians and critiquers. This attitude can set you up for failure and leave you wondering why everyone else is publishing but you.
For instance, some choose to write the way we talk. Many don't realize that writing the way we speak doesn't always go over well in print.
Fifth, know your audience.
You don't want to fill your manuscript with complex sentences and large vocabulary words if you're writing teen fiction.
Sixth, use as many resources as your money can buy.
Be resourceful by buying used reference books.
But let me caution you about paying for services that help you with these writing rules. Many websites exist solely to solicit monies from you for the very things we can learn on our own. I look at it this way: if a site is advertising to help with eliminating pronouns, I will enter eliminating pronouns in my search engine and research this until I find "free" advice. One site may "not" offer as much advice as you like, but a collection of sites may give you all that need.
Don't, however, limit yourself to the internet. Keep good reference books at your fingertips. Reading is the best advice I can offer you. READ. Read. Read. Read good books. And don't limit yourself to one genre. You'll be surprised what you can learn from other writers.
The following books have proven useful for me.
• Edgerton, Les (2007). Hooked - Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Let them Go. Cincinnati, OH: F+W Media, Inc.
• Heehler, Tom (2011). The Well-Spoken Thesaurus - The Most Powerful Way to Say Everyday Words and Phrases. Naperville, IL: Sourcebook, Inc.
• Little, Brown & Company Limited. (2nd ed.). (1983). The Little Brown Workbook. Canada.
• Plotnik, Arthur (2005). Spunk & Bite - A Writer's Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Lanugage & Style. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.
• Ragno, Nancy (2011). Word Savvy - Use the Right Word Every Time, All the Time. Cincinnati, OH: F+W Media, Inc.
• Williams, Joseph M. (9th ed.). (2007). Style1 - Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
• Yagoda, Ben (2013). How to Not
Right Bad Rite Bad Wright Bad Write Bad - The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. New York, NY: Riverhead Books (Penquin Group USA) Inc.
Donna B. Comeaux
Author, Poet, Novelist
Selfish Ambition - http://www.smashword.com; bn.com