The Rules of Writing (Not)
Posted by jmdattilo
It seems everyone has a list of what they believe are the Rules for Writing. Authors often create lists giving their rules. And that’s great. If you want to write just like other authors.
The trouble with the Rules, especially for fiction writers, is that they are too restrictive. Writing is a creative process. Nothing will stop a first draft more effectively than trying to obey all the Rules. And nothing deprives a writer of their own style and voice like solemnly following another author’s dictates about how to create your novel.
Don’t misunderstand. There is a lot of good advice out there from experienced writers who know their craft. The trouble is, what works for one writer is not necessarily the formula that will work for another. Sorting through the endless advice on how to write is a search for self. You take a little bit from here and a little bit from there and meld it into your own process, a process that evolves the more you write.
We are often asked by new authors to provide a list of the Rules, and they are usually disappointed when we do not. However, we will say that the best list of the Rules that we have ever found comes from Kurt Vonnegut in his essay “How to Write with Style.”
- Find a subject you care about.
- Do not ramble, though.
- Keep it simple.
- Have the guts to cut.
- Sound like yourself.
- Say what you mean to say.
- Pity the readers.
Why should writers strive to improve their style? Vonnegut wrote, “Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them.”
And that is the the most important Rule. Care about what you write. Be passionate about your subject and your craft.
One last piece of advice to keep in mind. Vonnegut did write another list of Rules (in a preface to his short story collection Bagombo Snuff Box). This list is more typical of other authors’ Rules of Writing:
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
However after the list, he added:
The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.
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