Archive for the ‘Writing Rules’ Category

Photo by Jenni Jones on Unsplash

I remember an episode of NCIS where the character Abby Sciuto (played by the very talented Pauley Perrette) said something to the effect of “I used to be an anarchist, but I quit. Too many rules.”

Too many rules. Ay, there’s the rub! Whether it’s anarchy, religion, writing, society, or even life itself, we’re hemmed in by rules. Grammar, ritual, whatever: rules are everywhere.

It makes me want to scream sometimes.

But then I remember the Number One Rule as taught by a former English professor: “You have to know the rules in order to break them deliberately.”

Or as Bob Dylan so elegantly put it, “To live outside the law, ya gotta be honest.”

That great master of the English language, Winston Churchill, was once taken to task during an interview for having ended a sentence with a preposition. He glared at the young reporter and replied, “That, sir, is arrant nonsense, up with which I will not put.”

Here on Medium, you can find countless examples of rules for writing which, given that this is primarily a site for writers, makes sense. I know; I’ve read many of them. Some of them even make sense. Actually, they all make sense, if you look at them from the point of the various authors who wrote them. They make sense to that person for a very simple reason: they work for her.

And ultimately, isn’t that why we have rules in the first place? Because they work? But here’s the thing: my rules work for me. Do I have the right, then, to force them onto anyone else? I don’t know you. We’ve never met and probably never will. So who am I to say my rules will work for you?

Rules vs. Laws

Here’s where things get sticky. One of my rules is that I don’t have a uterus, so I have no say in what any other woman does with hers. It’s none of my business. Therefore, I am pro-choice. Notice I said pro-choice, and not pro-abortion. There’s a huge difference. I don’t favor abortion, but as I said, it’s not my body.

But.

There are also people who don’t believe a woman has the right to choose what she can and can’t do with her own body, and they make laws about it.

I deliberately chose abortion as an example precisely because it’s such a hot-button issue. Alabama’s governor just signed a new law which is the most restrictive in the nation. Even such a right-wing religious fanatic as Pat Robertson says it goes too far.

Found on Facebook

I seem to remember an old document from my distant hazy high school history class. I said something to the effect that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It goes on to say “[t]hat to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…”

It seems to me — and I can’t be the only one — that our current form of government has indeed become destructive of these ends, especially the pursuit of happiness.

I have no answers.

For Further Reading:

The Declaration of Independence

The Constitution of the United States

The Declaration of the Rights of Man

The Age of Reason

The American Crisis

Or, “Another Day, Another Boring Article”

Faulkner

It’s 9:00 a.m. I’ve been up since 8. I’ve checked my mail (twice), read the gloomy weather report (8°), made the first cup of tea of the day, wasted 15 minutes on Pinterest, and posted an image to Instagram.

Damn. I’ve run out of distractions. No more excuses. *sigh* Guess it’s time to start writing.

Do you start your mornings like that?

I’ve only had one or two days begin that way. I hate them. I wake up wondering just what the hell I was thinking when I decided to be a writer — even though I’ve been writing for most of my life.

One thing I’ve discovered since the popularity of the Internet is that writing for the screen and writing for the printed page are two different animals.

On the printed page my paragraphs can be long, as long as they need to be to get my idea across. I can add footnotes, end notes, and all the fancy-schmancy doodads required by academic writing standards.

Not so when writing for the screen: the moat common reaction to long paragraphs is for your reader to go somewhere, anywhere, else.

A page with shorter paragraphs,for example.

I don’t mean this as a criticism (well,not entirely); it’s a fact that the Internet, with its sights and sounds, pop-up ads, and other distractions, has contributed to shortened attention spans.

So has television, with its ability to create world-threatening scenarios which Our Hero is able to resolve in an hour — with time out for advertisements.

Shorter attention spans, however, force us as writers to (in the words of Prof. William Strunk) “Omit needless words.” That worthy considered that rule so crucial that he repeated it. Three times.

So at least in that way it’s a blessing. We are forced to hone our craft, to fine-tune our words, so that we get our message across quickly and concisely.

Of course, that lets our stories for the printed page be as wordy and descriptive as ever.

Yes, I write primarily for the screen, but I fill my spare time reading novels and scholarly works.

With today’s technology, Ernest Hemingway would be a better choice for the screen than would say, William Faulkner.

But Faulkner would run rings around Hemingway on the printed page.

Or is it just an excuse?

Last night my friends Rick and Kirk from Syracuse came to visit, and we stayed up far too late watching Dr. Phil analyze a young man who is, to put it in psychiatric terms, batshit crazy. Nutty as a fruitcake. As crazy as a shithouse rat.

I rarely watch television. In fact, the few times I have was when Rick and Kirk were visiting. Anyway, by the time I got to bed it was 2:30 in the morning. I woke up at 9 to take my morning meds, and lay back down and managed to sleep until 10:30 or so. After a leisurely breakfast (leisurely because I was so tired it took me a couple of hours to get around to it), I went back to bed around 2:00…

…and immediately had so many ideas and topics running around my brain that I had to get up and start writing. As I write this, it’s 4:00 pm and I’ve already posted on two of my other blogs.

This, I believe, is the hallmark of a true writer, as opposed to a hack: when you have to write something that it keeps you from doing anything else until you get it down, whether on paper or as pixels on the screen. The need—not just the desire, but the raw, urgent need—to say what you have to say before you can finally feel able to turn to other pursuits.

Writers on Writing

My Pinterest board has over 200 quotes from writers about writing. From the simplest statement (A writer writes) to the most esoteric (Don’t just write—BE a writer), some of the biggest names in literature have shared their insights on just how to write.

After reading and studying them, hoping for some magic, become-a-writer-overnight scheme, this is what I have come away with:

Nobody else can tell you how to write.

Whether it’s Ernest Hemingway, who is often miscredited with the “It’s easy to write; all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed,” to Evelyn Waugh, who is reputed to have insisted on writing whilst wearing a three-piece suit, I’ve come to realize that when writers offer tips to other writers, they’re not spouting so deep, eternal truth; rather they’re describing what works for them! Nothing more, nothing less.

Pretty simple, yes? But here’s the catch: I’ve been writing off and on for the past 50 years, and it only took me until now, June of 2018, to understand this “simple” idea.

There’s No One Way to do It

Something else I’ve learned is that even for me there is no  one-size-fits-all approach. What works one day might not work the next. Sometimes I’ll sit down and dash off a few lines, paragraphs, or even pages without stopping, then go back and read and correct what I’ve just written. Other times I can’t move onto the next sentence until I’ve written and rewritten the current one until it is perfect.

Most days I know what I want to say. Other days I pull up a blank page and stare it it, chain smoking cigarette after cigarette (only figuratively—I switched to a vaper a long time ago) until I begin to get the ghost, the hazy idea of what I want to say.

The One True Thing

My own One True Thing is based on a quote from Hemingway:

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.

This is what keeps me going when I don’t want to write. I write one true sentence, and it goes from there.

In Closing I’d Like to Say

This is what works for me. Your mileage may vary. Find what works for you, and stick to it.

And be sure to check out my Standard Disclaimer.

Thanks for reading.


And Anyone Else Who Thinks They Know the Rules of Writing

Dear Mr. Lovecraft,

At night, when the objective world has slunk back into its cavern and left dreamers to their own, there come inspirations and capabilities impossible at any less magical and quiet hour. No one knows whether or not he is a writer unless he has tried writing at night.

Do you mind if I call you Herb? That is, after all, your name: Herbert Phillips Lovecraft.

Anyway, Herb, I tried your advice about writing at night, and it sucked. See, I’m a morning person. Always have been, always will be. I guess it’s just encoded in my genes that I’m at my most productive around 8 in the morning.

But just for shits & giggles, I tried your way — and gave up after 3 days. First, I could barely stay awake past 10 pm. Second, I still woke up at 8 the next morning, even after forcing myself to stay up until midnight — when I was far too tired to even have an idea, much less write it down.

The about writing is this, Herb: nobody can tell anyone else the “right” or “wrong” way to do it. Writing is communication, and the method is unique to all of us. I tried writing at night, and it doesn’t work for me. Does that mean I’m not a writer? Or — and this is, I suspect, more likely the truth — that I’m not a writer by your standards.

Here are some other ways I don’t write:

  1. With a quill pen, which I understand was once quite fashionable
  2. Standing up and leaning on my mantel
  3. With a typewriter
  4. With a pencil or a pen

All of these were once “rules” of writing for certain specific authors, and which have never worked for me. I grew up with typewriters, first manual and later electric. And while I used to love my IBM Selectric typewriter, and later, my IBM Displaywriter, I’m now perfectly content with my laptop, iPad, and iPhone.

The only hard and fast rule I have consistently adhered to for the past 50 years of writing was one taught by Dr. Louis Bittrich in my advance-placement college Freshman Composition class: “You can’t break the rules until you know them and understand why they’re there. Only then can you deliberately violate them, if it helps get your message across.”

So Herb, this is where you and I part company. I really love a lot of your work, but I’m afraid your opinion on writing at night will, for me, remain just that: an opinion. I tried it, it didn’t work, so I’m going back to writing in the morning, over a steaming mug of strong black tea.

Sincerely,
A Fan