The Human Condition:

Rules for Writers – October 6, 2013


I am Facebook friends these days with a number of writers, and many of them have recently been posting links to blogs that offer rules for writers. Most of these bloggers catalog offenses they feel should never be committed. Along the same lines, back when I was attending science fiction conventions, many panels on authorship offered rules on how not to write. And finally, early in my career I participated in a number of writers’ groups, and one or more of the members would always criticize from a position of rules that had been broken in the manuscript under discussion.

What sort of rules am I talking about? Not the generalities of writing clearly and naturally, avoiding excessive detail and the straining of artifice, being mindful of the reader’s time and attention span, using correct grammar, capitalization, and punctuation, and other matters generally raised in high-school English classes. The rules that get posted these days are specific, pointed, and implicitly refer to usages that the poster has seen too often in the books and manuscripts he or she reads.

Off the top of my head, and without intending to reveal sources, here are some examples:

Off the top of my head, and without intending to reveal sources, here are some examples:

• Don’t use adverbs. They’re a tool of lazy writers.

• Don’t use adjectives. Instead, just find a noun that best describes the object.

• Never use “book-said-isms.”1 To indicate who’s speaking, only use the plain verb “said.”

• Don’t tag lines of dialogue with the verb “said” to indicate who’s speaking. In a talk between two people, the reader can easily follow the back and forth. In a conversation among three or more, craft the speech pattern of each person—through modulation, word choice and order, accent, and so on—so that the reader will know who’s talking at any moment.

• Don’t use colorless verbs, but instead find action words. Characters shouldn’t “move” across a room; they should “creep,” “pace,” “glide,” or “stride.”

• Don’t use lists. Instead, pick out the two key elements and let them stand alone for what you mean.2

• Never use exclamation marks. The state of terror or excitement should be obvious from your choice of words.

• Never use ellipses. For any pause, a simple comma is sufficient.

I certainly agree that any of these elements, when used too often, will intrude on the reader’s enjoyment and distract from the reading. A good craftsman knows all of his tools and uses them at the appropriate time.3 If your only tool is a hammer, your prose is going to read like bang, bang, bang!

These injunctions are like telling a composer, “Don’t write a part for the piccolos. Use the flute section instead.” Or “Never use the glockenspiel or the triangle.” It might create some unusual music to force the flute section into the really high notes, or to task the violins or trumpets with making bell-like sounds. But as a general rule, it’s better to find a natural voice for the music using all of the instruments in an orchestra.

Each of the rules above requires the writer to take extra steps, to go out of his or her way, to avoid the hated construction. Adverbs can always be replaced with some longer construction, and sometimes with a more descriptive verb: so “walked slowly” can always be made into “walked at a slow pace” or even “limped”—if you want to give the character an enduring handicap. But the shorthand of adverbs exists for a reason. Similarly, in German there may exist a single word to designate a “little red car,” but in English even the most descriptive term—say, “roadster”—doesn’t quite do it. Specificity captures the reader’s imagination but, to paraphrase Macbeth, ’twere best done quickly.

In dealing with dialogue, it may be useful to create a unique speech pattern or a modest accent for one or two characters that suggests their origins or class. But not all characters need such designations, as most readers will hear the speaking parts with an inner ear that supplies its own familiar accent.4 Trying to give every character a unique speech pattern really only works if you are writing a conversation among a Scotsman, a Welshman, and a Cockney, unless you want to sink into the low vaudeville of Fu Manchu dialects and Irish brogues. And many readers will not be so attuned to speech patterns that they could follow a three-way conversation based solely on word choice and order without some help from “John said” and “Mary said,” or their equivalents in stage business.5

I do have a couple of rules for writers. One is don’t be obvious. It’s a big, wide, unique, and beautiful world out there. Try to capture it with your descriptions and actions. Make it come alive. Another is don’t be tedious. Use your words to focus on people, objects, and actions that move the story along. If a bit of description or dialogue isn’t helping to build character or advance plot, tone it down or knock it out—or twist it so that it eventually does its job.6

And finally, don’t let the writing get in the way of the story. If you are torturing your verbs and phrases to avoid simple usages like “he walked slowly,” you run the risk of wasting the reader’s time. Worse, you can come off sounding like an amateur who’s trying too hard: “Look, Ma! I’m writing!” Also, working with constant reference to the thesaurus is simply a bad habit we all go through and eventually learn to break.7 A simple, direct, and more or less colloquial style is the best approach to putting words on paper or on the screen.

But these are rules any writer can learn by reading with a keen ear and editing your own work with a critical eye. These are good writing habits rather than specific injunctions against any particular word form or construction.

For the rest, I favor the response of Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Future: “Rules? Where we’re going, there are no rules.”

1. These are replacements for the verb “said” that apparently are only used in a low literary context: “Whoa!” John shouted. “Enough,” Peter growled. “Get over here!” Simon barked. “I didn’t mean it,” Mary sniffled. According to the rule, these should all be “said,” “said,” and “said.” The rule maker would even forbid the occasional use of “asked,” “ordered,” or “whispered,” which actively indicate the speaker’s intention or tone of voice without invoking animal sounds.
       Of course, I would avoid using words that are not actually related to the act of speaking, such as “laughed,” “giggled,” “wept,” or “sighed.” Extraneous noises or necessary histrionics can be shown by adding, for example, “with a laugh” or “with a giggle” to the verb “said,” or by including these actions in a separate sentence accompanying the dialogue.

2. So—and incorporating more than one rule here—instead of writing “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun,” you should simply write “Two patties and sauce on a bun.” The reader will get the idea.

3. While I’ve been beguiled by Emily Dickinson’s poetry, it’s usually presented to the world after careful editing. If you’ve ever looked at her original manuscripts, you can see that she knew only three pieces of punctuation: the dash, the exclamation point, and the period, which is saved for the end of the whole poem.

4. In The Doomsday Effect, I had the character of Jason Bathespeake talk with an impediment, reflecting the fact that his speech centers were no longer connected to his vocal cords but to a mechanical synthesizer. In the manuscript, I had carried his odd speech pattern through every line of dialogue right to the end of the book. A wise editor suggested that I use the quirks for a chapter or two, then let the pattern fade out, with only an occasional reprise. This would approximate the effect of knowing or working alongside someone with a speech defect or accent: sooner or later the novelty wears off, you understand the speech as natural to the person, and you no longer hear the differences.

5. Stage business is a playwright’s term. I use it to mean some bit of action that accompanies dialogue to indicate who is speaking. “ ‘I see what you mean.’ John took out his cigarettes and lit one. ‘And how does that affect us?’ ”

6. Sometimes what seems innocuous or even banal at one point in the story will be shown to have significance later on. That’s a key tool of the mystery writer—and all of us, at some level, are presenting a mystery for the reader to discover and interpret.

7. Oh, I use Roget’s in my writing, but usually in the context of knowing that the word I have in mind is not quite the word I want. Then it’s helpful to look at some synonyms. Very occasionally, I might have written myself into a trap where I have to use, for example, the word “door” six times in three sentences. Then, if I can’t gracefully use the pronoun “it” for occasional relief, I might look into Roget’s for a synonym. But most of them are going to be a bad fit. Going “door … door … door … door … portal” is worse than succumbing to that final “door.”