Beware the "Writing Rules Police"

by Anne R. Allen

The Harvard Business School recently did a fascinating study of toxic employees and their effect on a company's bottom line. The researchers discovered the most difficult and costly employees aren't the lazy ones or the gossipy ones.

It turns out the worst are the ones dead-set on following rules to the letter. According to the Washington Post, researchers crunched data from 50,000 employees at 11 companies to come up with a detailed personality profile of a "toxic worker."

They found the most costly employees are the ones who said that rules should always be followed with no exceptions (as opposed to those who said sometimes you have to break rules to do a good job.)

And I know those "rule police" can also be toxic to a writing community. Especially when those "rules" are iffy.

Rigid Rule-Enforcers are Dangerous

The Harvard study said these people are dangerous in a work environment for two primary reasons:

1) Their rigid behavior causes high turnover and a hostile workplace.

2) They are most likely to be terminated for—get this—breaking the rules.

This may be partly because these are people who simply lie on the questionnaire because they think that's what employers want to hear, and liars tend to make bad employees.
Rule Police are often Ignorant

But I think the rule enforcers may also be examples of the Dunning Kruger Effect. (That's the study that showed that people who are most confident in their beliefs are usually the most ignorant)

People who cling to rules and enforce them with extreme confidence may be displaying their own ignorance of the subject.

I think this is especially true with some beginning writers. They hear about certain guidelines from agents or publishers or marketers, and in their minds these become "commandments" that every writer should be forced to live by. They never question the source or intent of the "rules" but simply follow them blindly and shame everybody who doesn't.

Thing is, there are NO hard and fast rules in writing: only guidelines. (And of course, fashion. Writing styles go in and out of fashion and have nothing much to do with "right or "wrong")
Inexperienced Writers Teach Each Other "Really Weird Rules"

Kris Rusch wrote a post a few weeks ago about how so much writing is sounding the same these days. She points out it's written in what she calls, "the serious writer voice." She says this is a voice that is "carefully bland" and "indistinguishable from any other voice." In other words...boring.

The reason for this?

She says it's because new writers, "have their friends (usually unpublished or poorly published writers) go over the manuscript. Those friends impose really weird rules on the writers. I’ve seen lists of these rules. The rules tend to vary depending on where the writer learned them… Some of the rules are truly idiosyncratic to some local workshop."

But, as Somerset Maugham famously said: "There are three rules of writing. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are."

And this is absolutely true: there are no rules for writing narrative. The most people can give you are tips.

There are rules of grammar of course, and they aren't what I'm talking about here. But even those are more fluid than many writing policepersons realize. Lots of things differ depending on whether you're in the US or the UK and Commonwealth countries. And MLA (Modern Language Association) rules for academic writing can differ from the CMS (Chicago Manual of Style) rules used in the publishing industry.
Rules vs. Tips

One of my old posts offering writing tips for newbie writers went viral last month. It got nearly 6000 hits in the space of a few hours. The post is called 10 Things that Red Flag a Newbie Novelist.

In it, I listed ten common things new writers often do that give away the fact they are just starting out. I didn't say all writers should avoid these things—only that beginning writers gravitate to them and they are tough to do well.

Even so, some commenters got their panties in a bunch. They wanted to know why I forbade new writers from doing things that are perfectly okay for established writers.

They accused me of discriminating against new writers.

But that would be silly.

First, I'm allergic to dogmatic thinking. (When I step in dogma, I scrape it off my shoe.)

Second, what I think a lot of new writers fail to understand is that there is a learning curve to writing narrative.

When they see a list of tips for newbies, they think they are reading hard and fast rules all writers must obey, and if they have a "rule police" mentality, they'll try to impose them on others.
Nobody is Born Knowing How to Write Well

Like any other craft, writing well takes time to learn. It's not a case of "right" and "wrong" or "breaking the rules" but simply learning to walk a few feet without falling down before you try to run the Boston Marathon or climb Mt. Everest.

Being reminded of this seems to infuriate some people. I'm not quite sure why. They wouldn't expect to play Carnegie Hall after the first year of piano lessons, or attempt to make a perfect Grand Marnier soufflé flambé the first time they turn on the oven.

But some new writers think they are being discriminated against when anyone suggests that a simpler project might be a good place to start. Saying you're more likely to succeed if you start at the beginning is not the same as enforcing rules or "forbidding" anything.

Since these people couldn't really hear what I was saying, I wondered if they might have their own personal "rule police" living in their heads.

When somebody suggests a nice batch of toll house cookies might be easier than a soufflé for a first cooking project, they hear "THOU SHALT NOT MAKE A GRAND MARNIER SOUFFLE FLAMBE, NOT EVAH! AND THOU MUST SHAME ANYBODY WHO TRIES."

But Writing has No Commandments

Especially in the digital age.

We are living in an era when anybody can publish anything and try to find an audience for it. If you want to translate the Epic of Gilgamesh into Klingon and write it in Wingdings, you can. Nobody knows what's going to go viral these days.

Wingding Klingon Gilgamesh could become the biggest thing since Gangnam Style.

But the corollary to that is: nobody owes you a readership. If you can't even get your mom to read your opus, don't spam everybody you've ever met demanding they buy it.

Ruth and I offer suggestions of what works for most writers on their journey to becoming professionals. We also warn against doing things that we did early in our careers that slowed down our progress, so you can learn from our mistakes.

But remember when we give you suggestions here, they aren't hard-and-fast rules—they're tips and guidelines to help you learn.
The WAS Taboo

My #1 pet peeve when it comes to silly writing rules is the one that says you can't use the word "was" because it makes your writing "passive."

I wrote a whole post about it in 2012: Should You Eliminate "Was" from your Writing?

I've heard from a number of writers who were unfortunate enough to meet up with an editor or agent who insisted they remove every instance of the verb "to be" from a novel. (Which usually results in unreadable—and sometimes comical—dreck.)

What most of the rule-enforcers don't get (Dunning-Kruger at work here) is that the past tense of "to be" isn't always "passive." It's also used to form the past progressive tense.

"I just sat there when the man punched me in the face" does not mean the same thing as "I was just sitting there when the man punched me in the face."

We NEED "was".

The "was" police aren't wrong. But they're making something a "rule" that's only a tip for self-editing.

Beginners tend to overuse "was" because it's the first thing that comes to mind. Unfortunately, using the first thing that comes to mind can make for flat, boring writing, so a quick search for the word can help you polish a manuscript and liven up your prose during the editing process.

But "was" can be an absolute necessity to communicate meaning. And what are "writing rules" for, but to teach us how to communicate more effectively?
Point of View Police

This is also true with the use of the omniscient narrative point of view. Lots of writing teachers say you should never use it.

But there's nothing wrong with the omniscient point of view. Some of our greatest novelists use it.

However, beginners tend to use it as a crutch because they don't know how to show emotion from a single point of view, and they end up head-hopping, which leaves readers in total confusion. So whenever I see a newbie's work written in the "omniscient" POV, I tend to cringe. Nine times out of ten, it will be the verbal equivalent of a fallen, soggy soufflé .

Also, it's very much out of fashion. Something like 80% of contemporary novels use the third person limited point of view. Using a device that's out of style can work against you. It's a little like showing up to a job interview wearing 1980s big hair and a power suit with Alexis Carrington shoulder pads. You've got to be really good to carry it off.

But if you want an old fashioned tone and you've got the skills to use an omniscient voice without leaving readers scratching their heads, go for it.

Learn to Create a Professional Product

Readers don't care about rules, but they do want a polished, entertaining read. They aren't there to educate you or "cut you some slack" because it's your first book. They don't want something that's confusing, boring, or obviously written by a novice.

One commenter on the "newbie red-flag" post said my suggestions didn't apply to people who are writing in a second language. They thought that simply telling an agent they had difficulty with the language would get them a free pass for sloppy writing.

But agents aren't teachers. Neither are readers. They won't give you a gold star for effort. Either agents can sell your book or they can't. (And remember that if they can't sell your book, they don't get paid.) If you need help with your skills in whatever language you write in, get it before you query or publish.

BTW, I don't mean to discourage anybody from writing in a second language. In fact I think people who can do that are awesome. If you want to read about the benefits of writing in a second language, check out this piece in E-Books India by Sasha Palmer, who's a regular commenter on this blog.

But you need to master the language first.

If you hire a plumber, you want one who can fix your toilet, not a novice who hasn't learned to use a wrench yet. You also want a bus driver who's got more than a learner's driving permit and a lawyer who has graduated from law school and passed the bar.

Readers expect a book that's for sale to be polished and professional. Their time is valuable. Don't waste it. Give yourself time to learn to write.

But don't do it by listening to dogmatic rule police, or you won't develop your own voice. It takes time to develop your own personal style. As Miles Davis said, "Man, sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to sound like yourself."

The suggestions and tips you get from the pros are ways to help you learn. But there are many roads and many ways to become a good writer. Write your story in your own voice. Learn how to write it in a way that's clear and entertaining and doesn't waste your reader's time.

But it may help to remember this quote by grammarian Eric Partridge "Every worthwhile book contains many faults, and every worthwhile writer commits them."

So ignore the rule police and keep writing!

What about you, scriveners? Have you ever been a victim of the writing rules police? How did you handle it? Have you ever been forced to remove all instances of "was" from your writing? What writers do you think write well in the omniscient point of view? Can you make a soufflé flambé?

by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) February 21, 2016

Anne R. Allen is the author of ten books, including the bestselling CAMILLA RANDALL MYSTERIES and HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE, co-written with NYT bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde. You can also find Anne at her Book Blog



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