The Rules of Writing

referee-1149014_1280.jpgAnyone who has followed my FB posts even casually will probably have got the impression – rightly – that I’m not big on rules. The internet, ‘how to’ books, writing classes… they all attempt to reduce this most creative pursuit to a set of instructions: do this and you’ll be fine.

Well, crap.

The basics: what is the purpose of writing?

Let’s go back to basics. What is the purpose of writing? Imagine a line… at one end is ‘Entertainment’; at the other is ‘Information’. All writing sits somewhere on that line, as do all films, TV shows, plays, lectures… anything that uses language as it’s principle medium. Everything. There isn’t anything else. Emotions? Sure, but only as a bi-product of informing you about something (usually something you already believed but may not have known about: it’s informing you about yourself). Humour? Yes, laughter is a bi-product of entertainment. If you weren’t entertained, you wouldn’t laugh. I have tried to find an exception that does not sit on this line, and so far, I haven’t found one.

I will digress for a moment here. If you’re not interested in visual arts and music, feel free to skip to the next block quote!

Visual arts and music sit ‘off the line’ – or at least they can, and a brief examination of why will shed light on why writing can not. Leaving aside the endless Renaissance religious allegories (which were about information) and pop-art (which is about entertainment), much of the Western tradition of painting between the two deliberately transcends the continuum. While the Impressionists were intending to inform through a rigorous, literal ‘truth’ about what they saw, they paved the way for art which aims to touch something ‘post-intellectual’ – that is, a state of experience which can not be reduced to a verbal description. It is meaningless to describe Mark Rothko’s colour-field paintings, or Pollock’s drip canvasses; Cezanne and Picasso informed us a great deal about three-dimentionality and visual perception, but they also tapped into something beyond language too; and the panoply of expressionists of the 20th century deliberately did not tell us anything at all about objective reality. They ‘inform’ about something beyond description.

The same is true of music, especially post-Bach. As instrumental music consists of both the medium and the message as a single indivisible entity, it carries no specific meta-meaning. Bartok’s six string quartets might tell us something of Beethoven’s methods of working in his late quartets, but they tell us nothing about the price of bread or the colour of a daffodil.

Music and the visual arts sit off the line because we are linguistic animals. We make sense of the world through a reductive description of it. Great (post-impressionist) art tells us about ourselves as unique, isolated individuals; it can not tell much about objective reality. Music tells us nothing at all, but has the strongest pull of all arts to that abstract part of us known variously as the soul, the heart, the spirit.

Writing, however, is ultimately incapable of stepping off the line, as it can not, by definition, divorce itself from our linguistic relationship with our perception of the world.

Digression over…

How does a purely  reductionist argument help us?

So what if writing can only inform or entertain? How does a purely  reductionist argument help us?

It helps because the reason everything sits on this spectrum if because it is all about communication. That is the first, last and only goal of any linguistic endeavour: to communicate. And that is why any prescriptive rules are inevitably nonsense. If your writing is communicating your ideas to your audiences’ minds, it works, whether you have introduced you main protagonist on the first page of the twentieth; whether you’ve used adverbs or not; whether you have used ‘info dumps’ and ‘head hops’ (and all this other neologistic crap spouted by the new breed of semi-literate internet critics) or not. If you have communicated what you set out to, you are doing just fine. The proof? Shakespeare and Stephen King are both great writers in the sense that they are both great communicators… but if there were truly a set of ‘rules’ of how this game works, one would pass and the other fail the test (which is which depends on which set of rules you choose to apply). Their writing styles have almost nothing in common, yet both are immensely popular, and rightly so. Both pass the test because there are no rules about how to be a great communicator.

So are there any rules at all that might help?

Yes and no.

I would suggest that the one thing every writer should be doing is reading

I would suggest that the one thing every writer should be doing is reading (and even here I have come across the odd exception of good writers who claim never to have read a book). Reading other people’s work will tell you all you need to know, provided you read intelligently. Read with ten per cent of your brain switched on to the writer’s technique. Find a passage that makes you want to keep turning the pages faster and faster to find out what happens? Go back, reread it, find out how this effect was achieved. Was it with careful foreshadowing? Did the sentence length vary, either from that in the rest of the book, or across the passage in question? Had the author switched point of view? Varied the balance between description and action? Did the style of dialogue change? There will be an answer: find it, and you can try to do the same.

If you find a passage with a particularly heightened emotional punch, ask yourself why. Were secondary senses (taste, smell, touch) being invoked? Was the writing more symbolic or metaphorical than before, or less so? There could be any number of reasons, but if you experienced that tug at your heartstrings, there will be a reason for it.

The majority of your reading should probably be in the genre in which you write, but it is also worth reading well outside that genre too. If all you ever taste is sweetness, you become dulled to it unless you have a little sour now and then to cleanse your palate. If you read analytically you will soon see that the techniques employed by a horror writer are vastly different to those of a romance writer. Sounds obvious? Of course, but try to find out what those differences are. Once you know that, you’ll know what particular techniques make horror do what it does (or whatever your chosen genre is!) and you can use these to maximum effect in your own work.

I’m not advocating some kind of anarchy in writing

In saying that you should ignore the ‘rules’ I’m not advocating some kind of anarchy in writing. Anarchy is lazy, and formless, unintelligent writing fails the principle test of clear communication. If your writing is inconsistent, overly complex or obscure it will fail to entertain, and it will fail to give clear information too. You will be ‘off the line’.

But by not getting tied up in knots over rules that won’t help you, you are much freer to find you own voice. And voice is important. It’s what publishers (and readers) look for. Consider, as a fairly extreme example, the thriller writer Lee Child. Technically his writing is awful – if you ran it through one of those oh-so-helpful ‘check my writing’ websites, it would come back littered with red marks… and suitable only for readers aged eight or under. But it works. It is his own voice, and millions of readers love it. You pick up a Lee Child novel and you know what you’re going to get. It’s not Salman Rushdie… but then if you wanted Salman Rushdie, you’d buy Midnight’s Children!

So, in conclusion, I’ll give an opinion on why I think so many people believe in the rules of writing… and why I don’t advocate them if you are serious about being a writer. Rules are designed to make life easy. ‘Do this and that will happen’: ‘write this way and you’ll get published.’ Rubbish. Writing – good, successful writing – is not reductive, it is an intellectual game. You have to have your brain switched on 100%. You have to practice it. A lot. I think it was the academic/doctor/opera director/general all round genius Jonathan Miller who said you have to write a million words before you’re any good. This may be an exaggeration for the average genre writer, but the principle remains. Practise – intelligent practise – makes you better, and there’s no short cut. Every rule ever invented will not make you a good writer if your heart and brain are not in the job. They might, at best, make you a hack writer, and what’s the point of that?





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