In a recent comments thread we kidded around with The Rules of Writing. That fun exchange — well, probably more fun for me — pushed me into thinking about the more serious Rules we have all discovered for making our writing better. 


Today, I would like to start an official, concrete conversation about — The Rules of Writing
— you have learned and employed with success over the years. We won’t
number The Rules because that will quickly get out of sequence.
Please post your most important Rule first; then explain The Rule;
finish by providing an example. You may add another Rule later in
another comment. I’ll go first:

Rule:
Good writing is always specific.

Explanation:
The singular is better than the plural; details specific to the one are always better felt than generalities about the group.

Example:
“They walked over there” is not as good as
“Johnny picked up his bloody rifle from the pavement with a trembling
hand; Nicky wiped tacky blood from the muzzle of her smoking pistol on
her skirt, and together they limped across the street: Johnny, dripping
blood from the gaping wound where his kneecap used to be, moaned with
each small step while Nicky, clutching the stump of an arm where her
elbow was now dripping tatters, kicked him hard in his good leg with
the glistening steel tip of her patent leather boot.”

21 Comments

  1. Rule: Simplicity is effective.
    Explanation: It is easy to convey the message properly with simpler words than with fancy jargon.
    Explanation – ‘The sound of the car crashing against the bridge made me numb’ is more effective than “the appalling noise of the car crash against the bridge drained my energy to even feel shocked…” – (I think I sounded confusing enough)
    Explanation to the above – As an amateur writer I had a tendency to write to impress, not to express and it backfired – to say the least.

  2. I participated in a ‘short story competition’ in a magazine in India when I was in high school. The winning story was supposed to be published in the next issue of the magazine. The story that won was just simple and plain and I realized mine was too ornamental to convey a message – I was trying to impress!
    Learnt the rule after being disappointed!

  3. Rule: Avoid unnecessary details or digressions that do not enhance to the storyline.
    Explanation: It draws attention away from the actual story.
    Example: “The bases were loaded as Johnny stepped up to the plate, grabbed his favorite Louisville Slugger, stepped to the plate and knocked the ball out of the park and straight through his parents’ bedroom window.”
    Is much more to the point than the following:
    “Sally James, whose daddy owns the ice cream parlor downtown, was on a dusty first base. Kerry Thompson, who looked like a one-eyed ferret caught in a blizzard, was standing on second with his legs should-width apart. Broad shouldered Jack Weller, nicknamed the orange streak because he ran so fast the orange uniform was a blur as he ran from one base to the next, stood on third leaning forward as though he was going to steal home. Johnny stepped on to the plate. He grabbed his favorite Louisville Slugger. He named the bat Woody. His grandfather, Harry, had given it to him during his last visit just days before his nana called and told them that Harry had passed away. Johnny tapped his new black shoes with Woody. He bought them at the mall the night before and was still breaking them in. The sales lady was very pretty. He looked at the pitcher and then over left field, then tapped his shoe again. Johnny exhaled. He smelled the omelet he had for breakfast. The pitcher threw the ball with an underhand pitch. Johnny hit the ball into his parents’ bedroom window. It was a homerun but Johnny lingered on home plate well into the night. He knew when he got home he would be grounded.”
    What does where Sally’s daddy work, the description of Kerry, the explanation of Jack’s nickname, where and when Johnny bought his shoes, the appearance of the sales lady, the details about Johnny’s grandparents, and what Johnny ate for breakfast have to do with the story?

  4. I read a lot of stories like this from elementary school on up because people confused being specific with unnecessary details… which actually reminds me of another rule:
    Rule: Proof reading, spell check doesn’t catch everything (be especially careful with consistency with the names of characters).
    Explanation: Readers may not know what you are talking about if you do not proof-read.
    Example: “Rebecca and Sara walked down to the beech. Bekka turned to Sarah and said, ‘Let’s go for a swim.” Sierra looked at her and replayed, ‘Okay, sounds like fun, Becky.’” Was supposed to convey:
    “Rebecca and Sarah walked down to the beach.
    Rebecca turned to Sarah and said, ‘Let’s go for a swim.’
    Sarah looked at her and replied, “Okay, sounds like fun, Becky.”
    You can have nicknames just don’t change the name everytime the reader comes across it.

  5. Rule: Know your audience/readers.
    Explanation: A well written newspaper article may simply tell a story while novel may draw you in and let you live the story. You probably wouldn’t use a great deal of multi-syllabic words in a book for children ages 2 – 4. “Twinkle, twinkle little star” probably wouldn’t appear in a technical astronomy journal. You wouldn’t submit prose poetry to a publisher that only prints sonnets and seriously expect them to publish your work.
    Is an example really necessary?
    I think I’ll stop now… I do not write particularly well and fear I may be putting up too many rules.

  6. Hi A S —
    How would your rule apply to a blog like this where you really have no idea who is reading you and why or when – unless they speak up and leave a comment?
    Do you only write for those who choose to comment?
    How do you handle the silent majority of readers who say nothing?
    What level of communication should you use?
    There are those who claim a writer should write only for their own minds and if others find it entertaining, all the better — to try to guess at outside tastes and wishes is an impossible task you can never meet unless you choose to use the lowest common denominator.

  7. “A writer should write only for their own minds and if others find it entertaining, all the better”
    Very true. The rule was not to suggest that any writer pander to the masses. It simply means that it would be awkward to write a book for young children on string theory if they don’t yet know their A,B,C’s.
    When applying the rule to a blog, you should write on whatever you choose (although preferably on something of which you are passionate or knowledgeable on) and allow the writing to select your audience.

  8. The active tense is always better than the passive.
    Writing in the active tense makes a story more lively and allows the characters to take responsibility for their actions.
    “The guard blocked John’s entrance into the town” is better than, “John’s entrance into the town was blocked by the guard.”

  9. my best and most important rule echoes chris’s. active, as opposed to passive tense. in fact, in grade 12 english (many many moons ago, lol) our teacher set a rule for all writing we submitted: no incidence of the verb ‘to be’ (ie no passive writing) at all or we got zero. man, we all griped and found it soooo difficult. try it sometime. take an entire piece you’ve written and rework all the passive verbs out of it. its a new approach to writing but its quite an exercise in ‘tightening’ any piece.

  10. I think that you should draft your story and then add better adjectives because if you spend all your time looking for better adjectives your mind strays too much from the main story line and then you can’t create the story well.
    Also, you should read the composition you have written a few times because you will always find mistakes.
    I’m not the best writer, but back in school days I used to be the editor of my school newspaper.

  11. Hiya Punty Ji —
    Welcome to Urban Semiotic!
    Yes, your advice to “just write it” is a good way to get a first draft down. Then you can begin to inspect and fix it. Read your written words a loud. Many times if what you wrote doesn’t sound right when spoken out loud then it doesn’t make sense to others reading it on a page.