One for the Writerlies


Amateur writers are often naturally susceptible to the claims of “experts” – those who present themselves as authorities in the field of writing. You’ve all read them in text books or maybe in a book on the writing craft you’ve read. These are people who give us, the learners, the seekers, the “rules” by which we must write, if we write in search of the elusive prize of publication.  Add to those experts a long and growing list of editors, agents and authors with Internet presence.

I’m re-reading a book I went through months ago. It had a great impact on me for a couple of reasons. First, the author is a man who worked to develop a workshop teaching homeless people how to write. He got them to expound their experiences and lives and distill it into the workshop. Over the many years of working with these individuals, he developed a class-type setting which works with or without a teacher. The workshop was wildly successful and many of those homeless had their stories published in the imprint he later started, and by the educational board of the county in which he started the workshops.

Anyway, in the book, he provides this piece of advice, with a caveat later in the chapter:

…beware of books that propose to give you rules. Beware of giving up your own quirkiness for someone else’s strictures. Rely on your own firsthand inspections and your own creative drives.

The author goes on to explain he does not mean to ignore standard rules of grammar and style for English. Those must be learned first. To bend the rules effectively you must first learn them perfectly. Like an artist who wants to draw superheroes, you must learn to draw the human body accurately first.

What do you think? Is this good advice, or is this a mistake? Do we shoot ourselves in the foot by not writing the way we’re told we have to write? Should we chase every whim of editor and agent and follow every breeze of literary wind rushing by us? Or do we do best when we learn what we must about our language and then ply our trade to our own voice, style, method and way?

Sound off, writers. I’m interested in what you’ve got to say.

-JDT-

All original content © 2009 DarcKnyt
ALL rights reserved.

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11 thoughts on “One for the Writerlies

  1. Wow, a real post! Now I’m going to have to think of something to write on my blog. I haven’t had a post in a couple of weeks, I think.

    I read an article last night which equated the pre-publication years to an apprenticeship. I think listening to those who’ve gone before us is part of the journey. You learn the rules of grammar, you soak up all these vicarious experiences, and then when you start to question your teachers, you may be ready to start making your own rules. Of course it’s different for each writer, but most of us go through that basic series of events.

    Hm. Interesting. Knowing when you’re ready to stop listening is probably, as the Big Fig Newton said, the tricky part.

    So yeah, I think we do limit ourselves when we blindly follow others’ advice. But I also think those limitations make us better writers, let us discover what works for us and what doesn’t. The trick is letting that stuff happen until you’ve wrung all the benefit out of it, and then letting go.

    I still think you need to figure out when you’re ready to let go. That’s what sounds hard in this. Different for everyone, sure, but how to measure ones own progress and readiness is the key.

  2. I heard this from multiple professors when I was working on my English degree. Whether reading or writing they would say to learn the rules and then break them only when it furthers your message. It is a little easier to see when taught within the various forms of poetry. When working within a form, breaking rules is like another form of punctuation. I can say that the few things I have had published didn’t break the rules but certainly bent them. I think it relates to finding your voice.

    Well, since I don’t have a message to further, I guess I’ll just stick to the rules. 😉

  3. The drawing superheroes comparison, not exactly a good one. Have you seen how they draw women? Not exactly an accurate human body.

    Sorry, Bob, you’re mistaken on this one. Most of the guys who draw those super women can draw a woman very well, but they draw them the way you see them in comic books … well, to sell comic books. Fanboy geeks don’t want to see normal, average-proportioned women, so that’s not what they get. The analogy is dead-on, if I do say so myself. 🙂

  4. If every rule were followed exactly, the writing would read stiff and formal, which is okay for journalism but not for novels. In my early years of writing, Id broken some rules. I fixed them according to advice. Now I do my own thing and my writing has more pazzazz.

    Pizazz is where it’s at, for sure. Thank you for stopping by.

  5. The books I enjoy the most are the ones where the author ignores conventional sentence structure and writes much as we speak. Again, spelling, punctuation and grammar are important, but stepping out of grammatical boundaries makes the reading more interesting.

    Realism in writing is cool to a point, definitely. Then there are all the rules about not writing too real because it will be boring. 🙂

  6. In order to be a true artist, you have to follow your own inclinations. However, true artists are often starving artists, only famous post-mortem. I think the crux of the matter is that Good Writing does not equal Getting Published. This guy is not teaching how to get published. He’s teaching how to write well.

    That’s an interesting view. I think there are some good living writers, but that’s just me. And of course we all have our own opinions. 🙂

  7. The point of writing fiction is to get the reader to have an emotional response of some sort. Feeling comes first in a story. Rules and tools are used to help you get the feeling you want across. So the “rules” are important to learn if you want your story to affect a reader.

    I have spoken.

    All HAIL the BRYCE! 😉

  8. Depends. Learning rules can save you time–you don’t have to learnt he hard. Following every rule blindly will lead to stiff or unnatural or dull writing. Saying you don’t want to learn rules because you want to be free is often an excuse for laziness (in my teacher opinion). Obsessing over rules is inhibiting. There are always more rules. I think the trick is to be thoughtful. Not all rules are bad or meant to hold you back. Not every rule is true. It is far more important how much thought and effort you put into your work. Plenty of rules I’ve learned have improved my writing, but I wander away from them when it suits me–and I’ve thought about it.

    But plenty of rules contradict each other. Not following any rules is fine if you don’t want to be published. Beside plenty of jobs have rules. Why is it that some people who want to be writers feel that they don’t have to have any? An artist ought to understand the rules of perspective. A writer ought to understand passive voice. Do you want to be good at what you do or do you want to do whatever you want?

    Yeah. Something like that. 😉

  9. I think there are RULES and then there are rules. You can’t break the RULES … or maybe you can if you’re a once in a generation fabulous writer. Sometimes I think an author has broken the rules, but often when I look closer, I see that they haven’t.

    Someone mentioned dialogue, which in my opinion, is where you can safely break the rules. However, in the same books which do that, I think you’ll see that in the narrative the author does obey the rules.

    Bottom line: unless your writing is shooting 20 feet above that half-pipe like Shaun White, obey the rules. 🙂

    Uh … okay. Who’s Shaun White, and what does the rest of that sentence mean? 🙂

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