On blog after blog about writing, writers are inundated with rules. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how much the so-called rules of good writing really matter. Thinking about that triggered another random thought. In the Broadway show, and the movie My Fair Lady (for those of you who know and remember it), there’s a song that Liza Doolittle sings that begins, “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words…” and, coincidentally, the title of the song is “Show Me.” Here’s a link to the song’s lyrics, with a nice “show, don’t tell” reminder for writers–
In some of the self-published novels I’ve recently read, I keep coming across examples of the “bad” writing habits that Scott and I (and others) have talked about. I put the “bad” in quotes because, if we’re being honest, there are different degrees of badness, ranging from the egregiously bad to the marginally acceptable. Not every broken rule represents a mortal sin.
Clearly the worst ones are the outright grammar errors:
“Me and him went to the store.”
“Your going to rot in hell”
“Its a nice day.”
Others, while still wrong, are less egregious and show a lack of knowledge of English. I see some writers separating words that should be one word into two words: back yard, door bell, book case, text book. All of these are ONE word.
Some are more marginal or even gaining acceptance now, such as using “who” instead of “whom.” I recently encountered a great quote: “As far as I’m concerned, ‘whom’ is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.” –Calvin Trillin.
For purpose of this article, I’m not talking about the standard grammar rules. If you’re going to be a writer and expect readers to take you seriously, you’re going to have to learn to use the language properly.
A writer friend recently gave me a bit of well-founded wisdom: “I’d rather be a good writer with decent grammar, than a decent writer with good grammar.” Note that he said “decent” and doesn’t mean mediocre or poor. Weak grammar won’t get you by, no matter how good your writing is–unless you have a patient writing partner (or a well-paid editor) who can clean up your grammar after you. Even tolerant readers have limits.
The writing rules I’m referring to here aren’t those of grammar but ones we’ve talked about: passive sentences, repeated words and phrases, the extensive use of “was/were,” beginning sentences with “there was,” weak constructions, the overuse of -ly adverbs, dialog tag attributes, and certain weak words and expressions we’re told we should avoid. The list is so long that a new writer may feel as if he will go mad trying to remember them all. It’s sad that I see so many of these violated in published books from the major publishers. A disconnect seems to exist between editors and workshop instructors, the former seeming not to know or care what the latter are teaching.
I first ran into these issues when I was taking writing workshops years ago. I’d read published stories in highly regarded literary magazines–places you’d expect to show off the very best writing–that violated nearly every rule and recommendation that my workshop instructors were telling us not to do. The only explanation I got was that in literary circles rules don’t apply because subject, theme, and experimentation matter more than the writing itself.
We ask ourselves that how much these recommendations of “good” writing matter when we see them being ignored more than being followed. When we submit our work to a publisher, how much does the quality of the writing matter? Certainly, poor writing laden with grammatical and spelling errors will probably result in an instant rejection.
I’ve said before that all the gorgeous writing will do you no good if the story is uninspired. In this regard, story must come first. At the same time, a great story told poorly is probably going to fail.
One problem in the publishing industry (and with indie-publishing as well) is that for every innovative idea dozens of wannabes try to capitalize on the success of each innovation. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. How many authors have tried to copy Harry Potter, hoping to capitalize on its success? But how many Harry Potter-like novels would you want to read?
Does this mean that Scott and I are wasting our breath with our advice? Can you get by on mediocre writing? It seems that you can. That doesn’t mean you will, or that you won’t catch flack from the critics and reviewers. You might hit it big anyway. Just don’t use the mistakes and weak writing of others to justify your own poor writing, and don’t get upset when reviewers call you on it.
Many of the rules of good writing arose as ways to correct and improve how the writing flows and sounds to the reader and not as arbitrary edicts. They’re designed to help you write better. But they’re also subject to change. A good writer will keep up with the current trends.
It’s worth considering that if a hit can be crafted with mediocre writing, how much better would it have been had the writing also been great? Don’t ignore the rules, but don’t let them dictate how you must write, and don’t let them choke your creativity. The good writer uses the rules as guidelines, and he knows how to bend them properly.
I’m going to close with a plea from one of my writer friends (also an English teacher), who takes notice of bad grammar:
“PLEASE in BOLD letters, somewhere, somehow, work in the difference between DO and DUE for those mortals not living in the South, where there is a distinct line of demarcation in pronunciation and therefore the written words. Be shrill if you have to.
“On a writer/publisher/blogger’s site this morning, I found ‘WE MADE DUE WITH HOTEL SUITES’ and my teeth are still on edge.”