Thursday, January 28, 2010

Writing Rules - A Paradox

There's some writing rules out there that perplex me. Maybe someone can help me understand. Many of these I've seen posted online within the last month. Others are just grammar rules.

Sample rules:

Don't use incomplete sentences.

Don't use adjectives that end in "ly."

Show don't tell.

Don't end a sentence with a preposition. (Although the Chicago Manual of Style says that's a superstition. Odd word choice!)

Eyes that drop or roll.

Don't use a passive voice.

And it's not the rules themselves that perplex me - it's the fact that I can take any book off my shelf and within the first few pages, find that several of those rules have been broken! So what gives? Are these issues important to some editors but not others? Is it that writers and new authors should strive not to break these rules until they are established and then they can write all the bad grammar their heart desires? Or is it something else altogether? Anyone help me here?

Or is this just one of life's great mysteries?


Sarah Ahiers said...

well some of them will force you to use stronger verbs (ie, the adjectives) etc. But i agree that once you're a "Big Name Author" you can do what you want because you're bringing in the big bucks.

All things in moderation

Unknown said...

You should strive for a grammatically correct ms; however, we do not speak in perfect English. We write as we speak - therefore some of the "rules" do tend to bend.

I agree with the big name authors. Apparently the rules don't apply at all. One even has a system and book that I just can't agree with because these rules are NOT grammatically correct!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Bendy rules then?

Bigger name authors might get some leeway, but it doesn't always work for them either. I recently read a book that had so many incomplete sentences, it was tough to read.

Helen Ginger said...

It's sort of the idea that you have to know the rules before you can break them. If you're looking for an agent, then send him your "best" work so he knows you know how to write.

You can have some incomplete sentences, especially in they're in dialogue. But don't overdo it.

Straight From Hel

The Old Silly said...

Gosh I could write a whole post on each one of those "no-no's". The crux of the issue is whether or not the author knows the rules and KNOWINGLY breaks them now and then for emphasis, style, or effect. If they are broken because the author simply doesn't know them - and as an editor I can spot the difference in a heartbeat - then it's just bad writing. BTW, some of those you listed are NOT necessarily bad grammar - the "ly" adjectives, for instance - but are considered weak writing in contemporary prose by most editors and pub houses these days. Passive voice falls into that category also.

Marvin D Wilson

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Incomplete sentences in dialogue makes sense, Helen - that's how many of us talk.

And Marvin, I'm trying not to break them! I've eliminated as many 'ly' words as possible and tried to reword passive phrases.

What worries me is what rules am I missing?

Anonymous said...

A lot of it just seems to be modern trends and what editors and the like are looking for. I'm a very big fan of passive voice and I love older stories that make use of it. It is soft and relaxing to read and really works around the point to build up to a climax rather than using the active voice where it just kind of throws it in your face and tells you to deal with it.
However as these are the current conventions then that is what we must attempt to do.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Duly noted, Cassandra!
I knew "has been" was used at one time or another.

Creative Chronicler said...

Like a true rebel says, "Rules are made to be broken!"

I tend to break the rules when I write mainly because I am grammatically challenged. I admit it. Luckily, I have a fabulous editor, Crystal Clear Proofing, who will fix my bluunders before I publish. If I ever finish the writing that is.

Hannah said...

Ahh, grammar, its rules change almost as much as Minnesota weather.
I try my hardest to obey them (not one of my strong suits), then I find out one of the rules I've been obeying have changed!
Argh! The frustration is palpable. Maybe I just need to write faster and get published so I don't have to worry about the changes anymore.