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Good bad advice

For something that’s so subjective, fluid, and intuitive, writing sure has a lot of rules.   From the time you pick up your first pencil until they pry the keyboard from your cold, dead hands, you’re exposed to a litany of do’s and don’ts that are sometimes as confusing as they are meaningless.  (I’m sure someone told Faulkner it was a bad idea to include a chapter in his first novel that is one opaque sentence long.  I’m just as sure that he ignored them on his way to creating Nobel Prize winning masterpieces.)

You’ve been told not to end sentences with prepositions, not to split infinitives, not to dangle participles (because they’re scared of heights?), and so on, ad nauseam.  If you’re even the slightest bit OCD (like me) all these rules can paralyze you when you have a thesis to write, an edit memo to compose, or a novel you want to start.

Do all those rules matter?  Well, yes, they do.  A good writer is one who knows the rules and judiciously breaks them for effect.  You can easily tell a great craftsman who uses repetition to make a point from a sloppy hack who can’t be bothered to look up a synonym, for instance.  As someone who spends a lot of time line-editing proposals, I can tell you that in most cases, rule flouting is not intentional or effective. Rules

On the other hand, there’s a lot of bad advice being doled out by “experts” that, if followed, will consign you to the Dantean circle where boring, tepid, uninspired prose blandly tortures the poor souls  whose crimes against literature landed them there in the first place.  Which is why G. Doucette’s piece in the HuffPost cracked me up.

The point?  Rules are good.  Rules should be understood and followed.  Rules must sometimes be broken.

What are your favorite rules to ignore?

5 Responses to Good bad advice

  1. D. C. DaCosta says:

    Thank you for saying this: A good writer is one who knows the rules and judiciously breaks them for effect. ….On the other hand, there’s a lot of bad advice being doled out by “experts”

    An expert is someone who has a vague idea and a pulpit. To paraphrase Tom Sawyer, his sayin’ so don’t make it so.

    As for rules to break…the only one I can think of that I consciously violate is the prohibition against starting a sentence with a conjunction. Very powerful when used carefully.

    And the same can be said for fragments.

  2. Lynn says:

    If repetition is done well, I’m all for it. I do it quite often in the poems I write, but of course, that’s different.

  3. Miriam says:

    Exactly, guys. Used sparingly and with the right intent almost anything goes. The only thing that I just can’t bring myself to accept, ever, is beginning a sentence with a numeral. I love repetition as an intentional device. I hate it when it clearly shows a lack of vocabulary. And, I’m very guilty of starting sentences with conjunctions….

  4. Bill says:

    Thinking about this so-called rule actually woke me up this morning: Write what you know.

    I think that’s bull. It’s limiting. If Mark Twain had followed this rule, we’d have neither “Connecticut Yankee” nor “The Prince and the Pauper”. Probably we’d have no works by Agatha Christie at all!

    You don’t have to be a doctor to play one on TV — excuse me, I meant to say, to write a convincing hospital story. You just need some good reference materials and reliable sources in the medical field, and good observation skills.

    I’d like to see this “rule” replaced with “Know what you write”. In other words, do your homework.

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