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A couple of weeks ago I began a bit of research in response to the backlash against the ‘10 writing rules for novelists’ by writer Jonathan Franzen. If you’re not familiar with the big hoo-ha, click here for a bit of background.
It was obvious that these so-called rules had touched a nerve with many writers. I wanted to find out why.
So I put the question to writers. I polled writing groups on Facebook and received a total of 199 responses. More individuals shared their thoughts in the comments on my original post.
While this research has its obvious limitations, the results are interesting all the same.
|Number of votes|
|Use of passive voice||37|
|Excessive use of adjectives||25|
|Never start a sentence with…||17|
|Show don’t tell||13|
|Begin sentences with conjunctions (and, but)||12|
|Follow these exact rules to the letter or you are a horrible writer and terrible person||11|
|Flashbacks are a no-no||8|
|Just let people write how they want||7|
|The rules are so that weak writers know how not to suck at writing||5|
|All nevers and alwayses||4|
|Don’t info dump||3|
|Jonathan Franzen is an entitled prick and can get bent 😉||2|
|Not using ‘that’ so much||2|
|Real writers don’t follow any rules||1|
|Ending the sentence on a preposition||1|
Sitting proudly at the peak is the rule against using the passive voice. Ah, the dreaded passive voice. A thorn embedded in my foot that I cannot seem to pull free. It’s one of my more popular articles on my blog, which tells me it pisses other people off too.
Going off my dealings with the passive voice, it can be a tricky area of grammar to fully understand, and that’s not the fault of writers. Much of the day to day language we use is passive. It’s become a natural way to speak. Shaking that conditioning can be tricky. Will passive voice be looked at with less scorn in the years to come?
Let’s see what writers had to say about it:
“Passive voice. I hate the generic “never use passive voice” advice, it’s such bull. Passive voice has a place, it’s just plain lazy to simply avoid it rather than learn it, it’s a tool like any other.” Anni Davison
“Passive voice is definitely the one I struggle with the most, I usually run my articles and books through Hemingway before submitting to try and cut some of it out. It just feels natural to write/talk that way.” Samantha Davis
“I argued with my teachers as a little kid over passive voice. I don’t subscribe to that “rule.” Never did. Who is anyone to tell a writer how to write and craft their own sentence? It’s insane and yes, sometimes it does sound better. Put down the red pen and just read and experience the story.” Laura Jones
“The one that is most troublesome for me is the “don’t ever use passive voice” rule, because it ultimately comes from a misunderstanding of what we use passive voice for in our language. The idea that “active voice” sentences are “active” and “passive voice” sentences are not is flawed. If I write “Jim threw the ball” or “the ball was thrown by Jim,” both sentences are equally active. Both show a ball being thrown. The main difference between the two sentences is the subject, and that is the critical point to consider. When an editor starts red-lining passive voice sentences in a paragraph, what they often end up doing is replacing a single subject for many, in turn making the passage more convoluted and harder to follow.” JM Williams
I intend to revisit the passive voice in the coming weeks so keep your eyes peeled.
This article also features in the acclaimed A Fantasy Writers’ Handbook.
There are some rules, one of which is broken by this very suggestion. ‘There are rules?’ This answer touches upon the reasons behind why people got so wound up by Franzen’s list in the first place. If you look further down the list of answers, you’ll notice a few similar ones: ‘follow these exact rules to the letter or you are a horrible writer and terrible person’, ‘just let people write how they want’, ‘Jonathan Franzen is an entitled prick and can get bent ;)’, ‘real writers don’t follow any rules.’ To me, these answers stem from annoyance.
Let’s set the record straight, or as straight as it can be. Beyond the guiding principles of grammar and language, everything else is pretty much fluid. So-called ‘rules’ are forever being broken with brilliant effect. That’s part of the beauty of writing. The creativity. The freedom to work without constraint, to take something old and make it new. So whenever you see someone use the word rule, translate it to mean guideline, technique, idea, advice. Not something set in stone.
What do other writers think?
“I hate rules. Advice is cool. Learn tools and when, how, and why to use them. Strive to be a great writer and write with intention. But don’t let anybody tell you there is some set of rules that dictates good writing and separates it from that bad, ‘cos that’s just bullshit and it’s going to steer you wrong.” Kai Kiet Pieza
“I don’t think it was Franzen’s use of the word “rules” that annoyed people so much as the incredibly stupid advice he gave.” DL Mackenzie. In response, Janette Collins says:
“Honestly I do have a problem with the use of the word rules. Creativity should not be governed by rules.”
“[Franzen] penned this for The Guardian almost a decade ago. In that time he’s also published two novels, two collections of essays and a translation of Karl Kraus’ memoirs. So whether you choose to pour scorn on them or not, they certainly work for him.” Stevie Cherry.
“Know the rules so you know when and how to break them. Then break them with malice. That’s the best writing advice I’ve received.” Mary Caelsto-Lenker
“Thou MUST learn thy rules… that thou mayst know when they may be broken to the greatest effect.” Aaron Gallagher
“I before E except after C has been disproved by science. Outside of that, read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, Rules and guidelines are there to help us write. If they get in the way, let them slip. But if it feels or reads wrong, perhaps a look at the ‘rules’ will help.” Frank Booker
“I liked all 10 rules. If you can’t get over the word “rules” that’s your own problem (not you specifically OP). They’re obviously meant as guidelines, and they’re good and useful guidelines to follow unless you know how and why you’re breaking them.” Bobby Lee
“The 10 rules are exactly what I have learned over the years. None of them are always true, and bending them is a lot of fun. Part of the art of writing is knowing about them and understanding why these guidelines exist, working with them when it helps the prose, and knowing when you don’t have to listen.” Katharine Southworth
To adjective or not to adjective
This seems to be one that’s bandied about quite a lot—refrain from using adjectives. They do you no good. Supposedly.
I’ve looked into this rule quite a bit and what I’ve come to learn is that it refers more to how adjectives are used. Though I’m a believer in maximum freedoms in life, an unchecked use of adjectives does make for a tricky read. But again, that’s not to say you can’t do it. I challenge you to prove me wrong.
Again, adjectives are something I intend to revisit in more detail in the weeks to come.
Adverbs have a similar reputation to that of their cousin, the adjective. I’ve heard many a writer exclaim their annoyance at reading the advice on adverbs in Stephen King’s On Writing only to then read one of his novels and find his story peppered with them.
The answer, I believe, is the same as with adjectives. It’s how you use the adverb.
Never start a sentence with…
I don’t see this thrown about too often, yet it’s scored pretty high on the list. The suggestion ‘begin sentences with conjunctions’ ties into this too.
It’s a ‘rule’ I’m aware of, but having read so many fantastic and award-winning writers who break it consistently I’ve come to see it as obsolete. Bollocks to it. Start a sentence any way you want.
Don’t tell me. Show me
I expected this one to score a little higher on the list due to the number of complaints I see about it. Like some of the other ‘rules’ noted above, it seems to be how you use it. Telling certainly has its place, particularly in shorter stories, but showing the story as if through the eyes of the character has a wonderful impact. What do the writers think?
“People parrot “show don’t tell” nowadays, not seeming to realize that there are parts that SHOULD be told. Otherwise, one’s protagonists just grimace, tremble, shudder, flush and twitch their way through the entire story (which gets tiring as well as ludicrous). And sometimes there IS a third alternative to either ‘telling’ or ‘showing’ — subtext!” Marya Miller
““Show, don’t tell!” (Yes, they do always seem to be shouting when they spout these so-called rules.) I’ve seen some rather extreme examples of this: “Don’t tell us that his car is red; show us.” *rolls eyes* How are we supposed to do that when all we have are the words?” Thomas Weaver
And what about you? After seeing this list can you think of something you’d add to it? Do you agree with the views of fellow writers? Please comment below. It only adds to the research!
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