If I were to teach a class about writing, here’s how I’d open: When it comes to writing, it doesn’t matter what kind of writing you’re doing, there is only one rule that has to be obeyed: make your point. Whether it’s a novel or a poem or a short story or an essay or a technical procedure, understand the point you‘re trying to make and make it as best you can. That’s it.
Things like grammar and punctuation and characterization and description and plot are all tools available to you. The more you learn about how to use them the better you’ll be able to make your point. For some jobs, some of the tools are more important than for other jobs. For example, if you’re writing a procedure on how to successfully diffuse a bomb, where a misplaced or omitted comma may blow the readers’ arm off, grammar and punctuation are going to be more important than if you are writing a play about two drunken high school dropouts from the rural south.
There are almost as many reasons people write as there are people writing, and they are all valid. You might be writing because you dream of being on the New York Times bestseller list or you might be writing a poem for only your spouse or lover to see. You might be writing historical nonfiction about an event or people that interest you, you might be writing to express a political or philosophical point of view, you might be writing because you have nothing else to do. Whatever the reason, it’s legitimate, and my one rule applies – just try and get your point across.
It strikes me that people are often moved to write for the same reasons they are moved to draw a picture, or play music. It’s the need to express something we feel strongly about. It’s also the absence of rules – when we draw, for example, we are free to draw whatever the hell we want to; using whatever materials and colors and shapes we feel like using or are available to us. There are no rules to what we draw or how we draw it, just like there should be no rules when we write – well, maybe my one rule.
But it’s driving me nuts lately – all the “rules” out there that people are saying “good” writing must follow. They may have good intentions, and their “rules” might make sense most of the time, but they are not “rules,” they are not absolutes. A writer friend of mine who I have a great deal of respect for was recently bemoaning the glut of self published crap that is out there, and that to minimize it, maybe a writer should have to pass a certification before being allowed to publish. This strikes me as so wrong on so many levels that I don’t know where to begin. Suffice to say that for me, creating art (which a lot of but not all writing aspires to) has always been about freedom, that there are no rules, that Jackson Pollack and Andrew Wyeth can both be considered “modern artists.” Art is where we turn when we feel the need to break free of the rules that dominate the rest of our lives. There is a certification for public accounting, let’s leave it out of art.
It seems that the “gatekeepers,” those who control who and what get published, are imposing more and more rules on writers and writing now days, especially when writing short or long fiction. It’s becoming something of a cottage industry. There are an endless supply of books, web sites, webinars, seminars, conferences and retreats where you can study all of the rules for good writing. And don’t get me wrong, most of them are sincere, and many of them are helpful. But I think the best approach, no matter how impassioned or emphatically the “rule” is expressed, is to take them as advice but not gospel. I think there are few if any hard fast rules that are absolute.
Some examples of popular “rules:”
The “show, don’t tell” rule – good advice, to a point. But if you take it as absolute, and show everything, your story will never go anywhere. After all, they don’t call it “story showing,” it’s “story telling.” You should show what’s important to show and tell what’s important to tell. How do you decide what to show and what to tell? Whatever helps you make your point best.
The “less is more” rule – again, a good idea generally, but there are times when “more is more.”
“Always write with an active voice” – avoid things like “to be” and “had not.” Sorry, Hamlet, your soliloquy from now on is going to start “Be or not? That is the question.”
“All stories must have a clear antagonist” – Tell me, in Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” or “The Sound and the Fury”, or Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” who the clear antagonist is. In Hemmingway’s classic short story “Big Two Hearted River,” is time the antagonist? Is it the war that has damaged Nick? Or the swamp? Whatever answer you come up with, it’s not obvious or clear who the antagonist is, or if there even is one. (“Antagonist” shouldn’t be confused with “conflict,” which I think is the one thing, in addition to a point, that every piece of fiction absolutely needs.)
“Every novel has to have a beginning that pulls you in immediately” – This is good advice, but is too often misinterpreted that every story has to start with some dramatic event or action packed cliffhanger. There are multiple ways of drawing a reader in. You can gently and simply introduce the main character (“Call me Ishmael”), or poetically describe the setting (“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream,” or “Summer here comes on like a zaftig hippie chick, jazzed on chlorophyll and flinging fistfuls of butterflies to the sun.”) , or briefly summarize the plot (“This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.”) These beginnings all draw the reader in; note that there is no breathless description of pulse stopping suspense, nobody tied to the railroad tracks with an approaching freight engine rumbling loudly.
So back to my one hard rule – I don’t mean to imply obeying only one rule makes things easy. It’s still work, getting your point across, and even when you do, you can be assured that you always could have done it better, more concisely or completely. The tools matter and you’re better off mastering as many of them as you can. It’s easier to build a doghouse with a full toolbox than with just a hammer.
When you’re building a doghouse you need not only tools but materials. In writing, the materials come from inside you. They are how you view the world and your place in it, your experiences and what you’ve learned to be true. They are the things important to you. No matter what kind of writing you do, it’s going to be framed by how you process things. Even journalists trying to write the most objective report of a news event are affected by their experience, because writing isn’t only about what you write, what you put in the story, it’s also about what you leave out. By better understanding yourself, you are given access to stronger and better tools. You can build a much better doghouse with some two by fours and a couple of sheets of plywood than with cardboard, and you can write a much better story if you’re clear on why it’s important enough to you to spend the time and effort putting it down.
Whatever your reason for writing, remember that it is just as valid and legitimate as any other reason. And if you are serious about writing, keep at it – the more you write, the better you get at it, no matter which rules you choose to follow.
So that’s it. I’m done pontificating for now. I’ve made my point.