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Thursday, 2 May 2013

What Rules Do You Hate as a Writer?

Typographic quotation marks (top) versus strai...
Typographic quotation marks (top) versus straight quotation marks, or "dumb quotes" (bottom). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They’re there, everywhere you look, on blogs, in books, on websites – those unbreakable rules for writers. Some are concerned with language itself; grammar, syntax, spelling. Others are to do with style; repetition, viewpoint, backstory, vocabulary. Then there are the rules surrounding presentation; font, paragraphs, spacing, quotations, dialogue. Of course, the gurus and mentors have their own sets of rules: you must do this or that if you’re to succeed as a writer. These latter rules come in the form of exhortations to build an author platform, participate in forums, network, join groups, create a bog, a website, become a member of any of dozens of professional organisations. And so it goes on.

Do you ever get the feeling you’re being bamboozled, perhaps being patronised, maybe being groomed as a cash cow for some organisation or individual? There are lots of wolves out there, seeking out those ignorant, naïve or inexperienced enough to become the victims of the many scams aimed specifically at writers. And all of them have their rules. Those laws that you must obey if you’re ever to become a writer, ever to make a name for yourself, ever to make your fortune. Assuming that’s what you’re after.

I, of course, have special rules that I hate. Some of these have been exposed as irrelevant or simply wrong as a result of experience. Some have been pointed out by other writers. Some were clearly not right from the word go.

Let’s have look at some of those I have problems with. Well, there’s one for a start: never finish a sentence with a preposition. Rubbish. We do it all the time. Writers have been breaking this rule ever since they first picked up a chisel to mark the first slab of rock. It’s idiotic. To obey this rule, my initial sentence would have to be reconstructed as, ‘Let’s have a look at some of those with which I have problems.’ Clumsy, at best. No one speaks like this and we shouldn’t be required to write this way. Only the Grammar Police will ever find fault with the use of a preposition at the end of your sentences. So, if it sounds right, use it.

Another: build an author platform. No agent or publisher will look at you these days unless you have a decent following on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn etc, etc. Two points with this one: do you want an agent or a publisher, bearing in mind the way they rip off writers these days? And, far more importantly, this rule is designed to stop you writing and to make you spend all your time making contacts online. I tried it last year, as a way of discovering the validity of this exhortation to build a following. Did it have any measurable effect on my book sales? With the possible exception of Twitter, none whatsoever. I’ve increased my ‘presence’ across the various networks I belong to (there goes that preposition at the end of a sentence again!). But, whilst this has amplified requests for my help for other writers (something I’m happy to do when I’m able), has resulted in numerous requests for the endorsement of work I’ve no experience of (there it goes again; another preposition in danger of ending a sentence!), has brought many requests for me to review books written by other authors (as if my increased visibility has somehow had a similar effect on my time available for reading), it has had no measurable effect on shifting my books off the shelves. This rule, so beloved of agents and publishers, is unlikely to get you what you actually want; i.e. more readers.

One more: use curly quotes, use straight quotes, use double quotes, use single quotes…etc. The only rule with any validity regarding such stylistic matters is the one that guides the publication to which you’re submitting your work (there; I stuck this preposition in place for the purists). Seriously, if a publication you want to publish your work uses single, curly quotes, then have the common sense to follow their house style. Otherwise, the choice is yours. Same with fonts (but do make the size and typeface easy to read, and you can use any colour as long as it’s black. On your website or blog you have the freedom to make your font and background colours the same, violently different, or traditional black on white, but bear in mind that people are going to be trying to read that text).

I must, of course, remind you of George Orwell’s rules for writers. These are, if taken with an intelligent pinch of common sense in interpretation, very sensible. The last one, naturally, is the most important:

1.      Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. (see my piece on clichés)

2.      Never use a long word where a short one will do.  (dip a toe in the hydrotherapeutic fluid and see whether the pool will suffice)

3.      If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. (surgical excision, scalpel at the ready, is essential to the prevention of purple prose)

4.      Never use the passive where you can use the active. (always better to be the one doing the doing than having the doing done to you)

5.      Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. (using obscurum per obscurius is simply employing obfuscation for the sake of it)

6.      Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. (up with this I will never put)

And I’d apply that last rule to all the various rules of writing.

Finally, from me at any rate, remember you’re a writer. Writers write. That’s their purpose, their raison d’être (oops, Orwell’s 5th rule broken!).

So, that’s my piece said. Are there any writing rules you abhor? Let’s have a comment with your reasons; see if we can help each other here, shall we?

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