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Jul
15
2019

Rules Are Made To Be Doubted -- by Dale Stromberg

Writers do not need rules. Rather, we need education and guidance—we need to learn how others have written, and how we might.

The writing rules often encountered in listicles or blogs are punchy and pithy—which makes them useless. Education is voluminous. To be an author demands untold hours studying the poetics and mechanics of language and the innumerable intricacies of storytelling. Voracious reading and keen consideration are needed to master even things as seemingly trivial as the series comma or the optimal position of an adverb – to say nothing of theme, character, plot and the rest.

This being so, what in the world is the educational use of isolated apothegms like, “Use strong verbs,” or, “Show, don’t tell”? Such rules feebly offer to stand in for education, delivering a punchline when the mind wants a process. They are akin to a math instructor who, instead of teaching students to solve problems, merely tells them the answers. A writer who has learned to choose the needful verb—be it ‘weak’ or ‘strong’—requires no such rule; a writer who has not, had better take the time to learn.

Such rules are also unarguable—again, useless. Argumentation is at the core of guidance, by which I mean the contributions of a writing partner, tutor or editor. Education can be one-way: the textbook does not adapt to the reader. But guidance is personal; it is responsive—unlike a rule.

Consider this: “Always use the right word in the right place.” Why does this fail as a rule? Because, rather than supplying an all-purpose prescription, it immediately provokes questions: How do you define the ‘right word’? And how do you locate the ‘right place’? These demand answers, which will surely raise new questions. It is here that guidance begins: This ‘poor rule’ is a handy discussion prompt for a tutor or writing partner.

On the other hand, “Never use adverbs” succeeds as a rule and fails as guidance. It tells the naïve rule-seeker everything she wants to hear, and nothing she needs to know. It invites no further questioning; it provokes no dialogue beyond, perhaps, incredulous protest at the blanket condemnation of a part of speech. (It also contains an adverb, but never mind that.)

Writing rules do not educate or guide. We learn vastly more from doubting them than from heeding them.

Posted by Dale Stromberg 15 Jul at 00:40
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Responses to this blog

Harpalycus 15 Jul at 03:25  
I would heartily agree with every word if I didn't, as a rule, disagree with everything anybody ever says.
Great blog,
Harp
Mhtritter 16 Jul at 09:02  
One of the best blogs I've read. Period.
Wickdpluma 18 Jul at 19:06  
This blog reminds me of many interviews with Anne Rice because she seems to always mention that there are no rules to writing. Although this would've scared me away from writing just a year ago, it inspires me now.
Schultz 20 Jul at 19:29  
Writing's like fighting. Somebody can show you how to punch, can tell you to shift your weight, etc, etc, but everything changes when you start to brawl. One of the things you have to do to become a good fighter is fight. The other thing you have to do is to develop your virtues with exercise—speed training, strength training, use the speed bag and jump rope for timing and coordination, balance, flexibility, and endurance all these things can be enhanced through exercise.

To become a good writer you have to write. Somebody can give you a rundown on how it's done, but everything changes when you're looking at the screen. One of the things you have to do to become a good writer is to write, and develp your virtues—make lists of verbs an use them in sentences. Without looking, point your camera down the street, then describe the picture, using an upbeat tone. Describe the same picture using a sombre tone, practice dialog. Record people talking, listen to it. Read all you can, good and bad. Most important—you're perfecting you, not the work, when you decide to move on from a project, you're going to take all you've learned and developed on to the next project—-that's the important thing.


Rellrod 21 Jul at 11:50  
Well said, Dale.

At best, such an edict is, like the Pirates' Code, "a guideline, not a rule."

Rick
Artuskan 23 Jul at 12:03  
But if you were never told, "Use strong verbs", or "Show, don't tell", then how would you know that you need to educate yourself in that area?
Capital 23 Jul at 12:14  
Artuskan
But if you were never told, "Use strong verbs", or "Show, don't tell", then how would you know that you need to educate yourself in that area?
I think that popular axioms such as 'show, don't tell' are tools, not rules. Certainly tools that every writer needs to know, but not necessarily use at every instance. 'Show don't tell' might be the very thing you need in this one moment in the chapter, but it might be completely inappropriate in another. I've read a lot of successful novels where the verbs were a little weak, or the adverbs were a little overused, but their work was on the shelf and people loved it! So who can say that there are rules?
Tgreen 23 Jul at 13:58  
I've read a lot of successful novels where the verbs were a little weak, or the adverbs were a little overused, but their work was on the shelf and people loved it! So who can say that there are rules?
And in what percentage of cases was it?
I mean, under most technical analyses, these "rules" tend to get followed by top authors in 70-90% of cases. For example, here's such analysis for Hunger Games. Is something that's followed ~80% of the time worthy of being called a rule? I would say yes, especially since writing is a soft science. Could they be told more coherently than through a punchline? Yes, but a punchline is more valuable than nothing since that gives one something to research/learn about.
I mean, I move a lot around corporate recently, and banks spend millions implementing methodologies that, in the end, get followed in 50-60% of their scope and it's a highly effective/profitable effort, so 80 % is a usage many soft-science areas would murder for.
With this in mind, I don't see this doubt the rules approach as useful.
Marisaw 23 Jul at 19:09  
I agree with Tgreen.

Writing rules are like grammar rules and spelling rules in English - there will always be exceptions, and sometimes the percentage of exceptions is very high, like irregular verbs. That doesn't mean the rules are wrong. It just means you need sufficient knowledge and experience to know when to apply them.
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Pariah 29 Jul at 17:51  
It's nice to see people with some sense. I say this because on other writing sites that I have been to the OP would have been shouted down and shamed off the site for daring to utter the idea that education is a good thing when concerning writing. I think the rules get a bad wrap due to a list of reasons, mainly because folks call them "rules" and the mindset to rebel against constraints follows with that. I don't think they are rules as they are elements or mechanics or techniques of writing. They should be learned but they might not always be needed for the story in question. If there is a rule to be followed it should be that everything serves the story. Even when breaking the "rules". Of course, got to know them in order to break them. As I was taught, ignorance does not validate revolution.
Robby22 1 Aug at 14:42  
Lists are reminders and in the case of writing what is on the list is advice. It’s a good idea to be reminded to check writing for loose verbs, overuse of adverbs, consistent tense and believable dialogue. Surely that’s the basis of effective editing.
Angelee 2 Aug at 09:57  
I am excited to be on this blog! Hope I learn a lot from other writers.
Cwotus 8 Aug at 11:00  
I think it's vital to keep in mind some rules that simply cannot be broken with impunity:

Here is a collection of humorous grammar rules that will make you giggle.

1. Verbs HAS to agree with their subjects.
2. Never use a preposition to end a sentence with. Winston Churchill, corrected on this error once, responded to the young man who corrected him by saying "Young man, that is the kind of impudence up with which I will not put!
3. And don't start a sentence with a conjunction.
4. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
5. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They're old hat.)
6. Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.
7. Be more or less specific.
8. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.
9. Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies endlessly over and over again.
10. No sentence fragments.
11. Contractions aren't always necessary and shouldn't be used to excess so don't.
12. Foreign words and phrases are not always apropos.
13. Do not be redundant; do not use more words than necessary; it's highly superfluous and can be excessive.
14. All generalizations are bad.
15. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
16. Don't use no double negatives.
17. Avoid excessive use of ampersands & abbrevs., etc.
18. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake (Unless they are as good as gold).
20. The passive voice is to be ignored.
21. Eliminate commas, that are, not necessary. Parenthetical words, however, should be enclosed in commas.
22. Never use a big word when substituting a diminutive one would suffice.
23. Don't overuse exclamation points!!!
24. Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
25. Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earth-shaking ideas.
26. Use the apostrophe in it's proper place and omit it when its not needed and use it correctly with words' that show possession.
27. Don't use too many quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I hate quotations.. Tell me what you know."
28. If you've heard it once, you've heard it a billion times: Resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it correctly. Besides, hyperbole is always overdone, anyway.
29. Puns are for children, not groan readers.
30. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
31. Even IF a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
32. Who needs rhetorical questions? However, what if there were no rhetorical questions?
33. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
34. Avoid "buzz-words"; such integrated transitional scenarios complicate simplistic matters.
35. People don't spell "a lot" correctly alot of the time.
36. Each person should use their possessive pronouns correctly.
37. All grammar and spelling rules have exceptions (with a few exceptions)....Morgan's Law.
38. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.
39. The dash - a sometimes useful punctuation mark - can often be overused - even though it's a helpful tool some of the time.
40. Proofread carefully to make sure you don't repeat repeat any words.
41. In writing, it's important to remember that dangling sentences.

I've seen this list in many places, so I'm not sure who may have first put it together. I found it today at www.creativeteachingsite.com/humorgrammar.htm
Redredrose 15 Aug at 11:38  
Excellent blog. Thank you.

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