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The rules of writing, or "why the classics suck"

I stumbled across a blog post yesterday where Australian writer Graham Storrs suggests that over-adherence to the common Rules of Writing is a bad idea. I think he’s wrong, but not for the reasons he cites.

This whole business of the Rules of Writing can be confusing for new writers, especially for those who aren’t quite sure what they’re doing yet and are still working to find their voice. Should they slavishly follow such prescriptions as “don’t use too many adverbs,” “avoid dialogue tags,” “avoid passive voice,” and the like?

In a word, yes.

I can certainly see Storrs’s point. The rules can be confining. They can certainly constrain your freedom to arrange words however you see fit. Mr. Storrs argues that Isaac Asimov, one of the true greats of twentieth century fiction, probably wouldn’t get published today because he breaks too many of the rules.

He’s probably right, but he misses a larger issue. Things were different in Asimov’s day.

We stand on the shoulders of giants. Here’s the thing. The art of writing novels has evolved quite a lot since Asimov was writing. Even in his day, the art had already evolved considerably from the modern novel’s nineteenth century roots. Whenever you think the “modern novel” was really born, one can hardly dispute that today’s writers start with an incredible advantage over their historical peers: We have the collected experience of more than a century’s worth of what works and what doesn’t.

There just weren’t that many novels around in the 1800s. Not only was it damned hard to write one—the very idea meant a practically Sisyphean eternity of quill-and-ink work—but having written, there weren’t agents to help you get published, nor the vast plethora of publishing houses who might take your work. Today’s maxim that “good writers read a lot” just wasn’t possible a hundred and fifty years ago to the extent it is today.

Sure, the occasional Jane Austin came along and penned something really timeless and beautiful. But we can hardly blame most writers of that era for fumbling in the dark through unfamiliar territory, with nothing to guide them and no ready access to a community of other writers who could skillfully critique their work.

Because of this, most nineteenth century novelists are—rightly so, in my opinion—forgotten in the dustbin of history. Even some works that have survived to become “Classics” are unreadable to the modern eye. This is hardly surprising; writers back then weren’t less intelligent than us, they weren’t less creative, they just they hadn’t figured out the rules yet.

Dickens never learned how to use a period. Melville didn’t understand that you don’t have to tell the reader the same thing five times. I mean, I’ve tried more than once, but I still can’t get through Moby Dick; Ishmael just won’t get on with it in that first chapter. Classics? Sure. Good by modern standards? Hardly.

The rules exist because they work. As time has passed and novels have multiplied to fill all the shelves of all the libraries of the world, writers have had ever more access to the printed word. We have more exposure to what works and what doesn’t. In all those decades since Austin and Asimov, the tribe of writers has read a lot—and learned a lot. It never stops. I would argue that novels of today are even head-and-shoulders above most material published as recently as the 1970s.

Today, here in the twenty-first century, we have it easy. We really do stand on the shoulders of Giants like Austen, Hemmingway, Salinger, Leonard, and yes, Asimov. We have, collectively, distilled 150 years’ worth of literal “book learning” into a kind of tribal wisdom that we pass among ourselves. “Don’t use too many adverbs.” “Avoid the passive voice.” “Don’t use dialogue tags.” We repeat these pithy lessons like totems, we whisper them as shibboleths to see if our fellows stare blankly back or nod in agreement.

Ultimately, we have these Rules of Writing because they work. Time and experience has shown this body of lore to be effective guidance for creating a great reading experience. Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? If your goal is to give your readers a great experience, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, those rules will help you get there.

When you know what you’re doing, you should break the rules. But then there’s that one other Rule of Writing: you can add “except when it works” to any of those other rules. Don’t use adverbs—except when it works. Avoid the passive voice—except when it works. The last bit of our tribal wisdom is “Know when to break the rules.”

Break them, if you know what you’re doing. Break them, because you should do your part to advance the art of the novel. Break them, because you should strike out along a dark and previously unexplored path. Break them, because maybe you’ll discover something wonderful. More likely you’ll find yet another thing that doesn’t work, but either way you will have contributed to the lore of our tribe.

But when you’re still working to find your voice? When the wisdom behind using backstory wisely isn’t yet clear to you? Follow the lore. Respect the rules. They work. They’ll help you find your voice, if you have the good sense to let them.

September 29, 2009 21:37 UTC

Tags: writing, rules, Jane Austin, Isaac Asimov, adverbs, dialogue tags, passive voice

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