Never Have I Ever (Writers' Edition)
Writing about writing. Those blasted rules we are all supposed to follow, specifically, their importance, and the equal importance of smashing them once in a while. Most importantly: what pulls you out of a story?
As writers we've all seen them haven't we? The rules. The interminable ffflipping rules. Things you're not supposed to do, and things you are supposed to do to make you a "good writer".
Don't get me wrong, I believe it is very important to know "the rules". It's very important to know them so that you can break them properly.
When you break rules, break 'em good and hard.
I see a lot of new writers quite intimidated by them. We can end up so cowed into following them that we lose our own unique voice. (Yell if you've been there.) And for what? Frankly, you can follow every rule and still churn out drivel.
Others claim there shouldn't be any rules at all. Anything goes. We should all write howsoever we want and kum by yah etc.
Some of us (give me a wave if this is you, you are my people) are looking for that sweet spot in the middle.
On the one hand, YES we all have our own style and we express ourselves freely. We don't want to be carbon copies of each other. On the other, there are definite things you can do in your writing that pull many (most?) readers out of your story. This is where those "rules" come from and why they're a little bit important.
It would be satisfying to have an algorithm to follow. It would be easier. But that isn't how creativity works, is it? The magic happens behind and between all those rules.
I remember as a very small child, writing "The End" in big letters at the end of my stories. I also remember getting older, and being taught not to do that. It's "wrong". It's "childish". "Real" writers don't do that. I remember a talk from an author who told us she makes a point of writing "The End" in large, ornate letters once the story is finished. This said with a twinkle in her eye. That right there, encapsulates some of the most important things I've ever learned when it comes to writing.
You learn how to do the thing "properly"... and then you bring back the imperfections in exactly the right amounts, like visible brushstrokes on canvas, left for effect.
Writing is creation, and creation is play. Don't be too grown-up about it. Leave the grown-up stuff for editing.
I love that word. It makes me think of a lovely hot bath. Just the right temperature. Smooth and soothing. Sinking into it. Effortless. It feels good. It feels comfortable.
What I don't want is to be made aware that my knees are cold. I don't want the phone to ring, or a Jehovah's Witness to knock on the door.
When we screw up, when we stack adjectives or use run-on sentences or what-have-you... that's what we are doing. We're knocking on the door, and jolting the person out of the state we were trying to spell them into.
Sometimes readers don't even know why they aren't immersed in a story, or why they can't stay there. When pressed, they might say things like, "it's just badly written". They often struggle to articulate precisely what's so wrong with it. (Maybe they are just being polite. But this is the internet, so then again, maybe not.)
This can be frustrating. Feedback is helpful, only when it's constructive.
This is where a reader who is also a writer can be very useful! We tend to be better at pinpointing just what it is that is keeping us from being immersed in a story.
I'm going to share some of my own pet peeves with you, and I hope you'll share some of yours with me. I want to be clear that they aren't "rules". They're more like... guidelines. Things to be aware of when you edit.
NB. Not when you write! Write with total and glorious abandon. Just get the words out. Nail the flighty little buggers down on the page before they get away. Play with them. Tying yourself up in rules will have you staring at a blank page, or else churning out cookie cutter content with none of your own personal signature. Balls to that.
I'm going to say that again, for emphasis: Any time someone tries to tell you rules for writing, they mean rules for editing.
The blasted rules
Hemingway tells us to use positive language. Elmore Leonard tells us to never open with the weather. John on Facebook tells us...
The world and his wife want to tell us how we should write, and half the time the advice conflicts other advice.
All we really want and need, is to be aware of "things that are likely to pull my reader out of the story". Sometimes you can get away with it. But to know if you can, let alone the how and when... you need to know what those things are.
Let's take "opening with the weather" as an example. It's like baking a brownie on Masterchef. It's not that you absolutely mustn't. There isn't actually a rule against it. It's more that it's been done and done and done already. You've got nowhere to hide. You're going to have to execute this dish with total finesse. It's got to be perfect. You're going to need to bring some flair. How can you make it stand out? How can you let us know this is YOURS?
I'm not that fussed about the weather thing to be honest. Dark and stormy night me, I love it. Shit, go really old school and "once upon a time" me! But there are some things that don't work for me. Some pet peeves. It's nowhere close to an exhaustive list of stuff that will distract readers, not by a long mile. Not least because, there are lots of things which are technically incorrect, but I don't notice them. As a result, I probably use them in my own writing. (This is why I always ask, at the end of my short stories, "What stood out to you? What pulled you out of the story?")
Here we go then - my top five, in no particular order...
Yes, it matters. A moderately literate person will catch the errors. For every moment they are doing that, they're not immersed in your story.
If you're going to use poor grammar, do it on purpose, make it work for you.
"She" is the worst for me, followed by "I". Don't ask why, I've no idea. It's something about the shhh shhh shhhh sound in my head every few seconds. It's just annoying.
Let me clarify. "As bright as..." is fine.
"He pulled on his boots as he blah blah blah blahed" is what I call an as-hole sentence. It's a wildly overused structure. (I've noticed it especially in romance and erotica, for some reason - which is partly why I have so little patience with those genres.) Please, I'm begging you. We don't charge for use of the full stop.
Adverbs are salt. I like some, but not too much.
Remember, every time you use it, a kitten dies.
We've all busted a rule guideline now and again, sometimes on purpose, and occasionally for a damn good reason. All the same, this could be fun 😁
Never have I ever...
- Opened a story with an "as-hole" sentence
- Used "but" twice in the same sentence
- Started a story with the weather (thank you Elmore)
- Written an awkward sex scene
If you've done any of these, 'fess up in the comments. Feel free to add your own "never have I evers". Remember to leave me a link to one of your stories before you go.
Thank you for reading!
If you'd like an actual story, not just writing about writing, please check out my most recent. A light-hearted take on the Three Little Pigs:
About the Creator
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Easy to read and follow
Well-structured & engaging content
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
I like your process and how you set up your writing! I did exactly the same thing on a recent story of mines where I wrote the end. I rarely do that but today, I decided to. 😁
Very insightful. Thank you 😊
These are great insights. I’m sure I’ve broken all the rules - some I wasn’t even aware of. Thank you.
Tips anyone please
I've definitely started a story by talking about the weather. It's a favourite of mine because of how well I think it builds atmosphere. https://vocal.media/fiction/rain-ai1r70uhz is a good example :) But... never have I ever understood how to use a semicolon properly. Much like computers and cars, I assume they're magic and just fix all my problems
“Adverbs” he said excruciatingly while peeling himself sweatily from the bedsheets. Yeah, I’ve stopped reading your story if I see that. I live a semi-colon, fire them in all over the place, makes me feel like a proper writer. Do I fully understand what they’re for? Not really. I think most of us when staring at an empty are tempted to wax lyrical about the weather to get the juices flowing. This is how Interpret the Leonard tip.
This is an excellent article L.C! I think its important to understand the rules so you can understand how and when to break them. Writing is so incredibly subjective, but regardless of style the most important thing is, as you said, immersion. And this is why we have editors - I know a lot of new writers get very precious about their work, and I've seen more than one person get upset at an editor doing their job - but quite frankly, without editors I think we writers would get lost in our own words.
Once again these articles are extremely informative (so many tips and pointer!) and very well written.
Another one I hate-- talking to the reader. Completely takes me out of the story. Don't talk to me, TELL me what happens.
Great piece, L.C.! The adverb analogy with the salt cracked me up. I’m sure I commit many sins myself, but the adverb one is my biggest pet peeve. Congratulations on Top Story, you are on fire! I’ve got to read your other one, too!
I'm the worst with punctuation. My grammar isn't so bad. But even there I have my moments. Great job and congratulations on Top Story!!!
Lots to contemplate here L.C. Here's my favourite horrible sentence from a multi-million copy selling bestseller: "A whole bunch of jeeps came around the corner at a great speed." I almost quit the planet after reading that in a book everyone was raving about that year. Anyone know what the book was? I get a little annoyed when I hear a 'teacher' telling would-be writers to "Show, don't tell". Okay, get everyone to take photos then. A good writer does neither. What pretty much everyone here at Vocal does coincides with what I suggested to my students, "Don't show, don't tell; ENGAGE." (I don't usually yell it- where's the bold key for these comments boxes, dab nag it?) That sounds to me a whole lot like what you're saying about being sure to immerse your readers and avoid distractions. Pretty pictures are distractions if they have nothing to do with the narrative flow. Sure, Elmore Leonard could write... his own stuff. As a teacher he was just a big blowhard with too much opinion and not enough tolerance for others' imaginations. I enjoyed your article very much!
As someone who makes more money editing than writing (so far, I hope), I think you've put together a pretty solid list of pet peeves. I encounter run-ons far too often in work from clients. They drive me crazy. As a writer, I've been guilty of all of the above more times than I like to think about. I like to think it's improved as I've grown. I hate parentheses, too. (Yes, I edited this comment before I submitted it.)
Excellent work , congratulations on your Top Story
ugh......I blame my heart. I want to write what it's telling me, and it failed English. My grandmother was an English teacher and by the time I was 10, I was the only grandkid still writing her. (She would send them back corrected, in red ink) I will be working on my errors and hope the message of my writing helps you forgive me. :) Great article BTW..spare the kittens
I am guilty of breaking so many rules! I try to improve all the time. It helps that my mother was an editor and gets on my case about it. My principal sins: adverbs and that. I'm working on it, I promise!
I really liked this. I’m always curious what rules people follow or bend or break because I’m sure I break plenty. You raise some interesting pet peeves! I don’t think I’ve started any stories with any of your never have I evers EXCEPT I’ve maybe done variations of the weather one. Usually a slight mention to set the scene “the dry hot wind carried the scent of blah blah blah” does that count? I’m sure I have pet peeves I’d have to go back and think of. Here’s one that I wonder if it bothers people. And I try to avoid it in case it does. Putting the main characters name in the very first sentence, as if we should already know this person. I have a feeling like there’s a tip out there to not do this. I TRY to wait until at least the second sentence to mention Bob.