Sunday 29 January 2012

Writing Tips: Rules Are There to be Broken

There's an exception to every rule.

In fact that's not generally true, but when it comes to writing fiction, the only exception to that rule is itself. Which is delightfully paradoxical.

You'll probably have heard plenty of writing rules, most of them lists of words you're not supposed to use.

Don't use adverbs. Don't use adjectives. Don't use clich├ęs. Use as few words as possible. Don't split infinitives. Never use the same word twice in a sentence. You can't start a sentence with 'And..'.

In the words of Cap'n Barbosa, 'They're more like... guidelines.'

Every single one of those rules, and any others you've heard, are there for a reason. It's useful to know them, and they are often right. But not always.

Take meter. A lot of poetry is written in meter, and it tends to sound relatively good. But poets write in iambic pentameter because it sounds good; it's not good because it's in meter. If you don't have a great deal of skill, you can write a pleasing verse by copying the rhythms used by others. But if you're good, you can write a good poem, and it might not be in meter. It might be, and often is, because meter sounds good, but not everything that sounds good conforms to those rules.

Likewise, any so-called rule in writing is just a subset of what sounds good. Following them because they're there can help a novice writer write something passable. But a good writer will learn to tell what sounds good, and if breaking the rules, in that instance, works better than not breaking them, the offending rule can go out the window.

That doesn't necessarily mean, even if you're a talented and experienced writer, that you should totally ignore the rules. Most of them are good guidelines and highlight things to watch out for. Adverbs are often unnecessary words. Using the same word twice usually doesn't sound good and might be confusing. But you must always remember that you get the final say.

For any rule, up to and including spelling and grammar, you have a veto. You can block it. You have a free rein to do whatever you like. But you should remember that the rules are there for a reason, and try to understand what that reason is, and go against the rules in a case that really is an exception.

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