Yes, I know, how dare I rant about writing rules (a lot) on this blog and now tell you to obey these ten?! But today’s posts is about some of the writing rules I’ve scientifically tested and found useful. (Seriously.) Unfortunately, I rebelled against some of these far too long, and I kick myself for that. This list is certainly not exhaustive; these are just the first ten that came to mind. If, in the future, I decide I was wrong about some of the ones I’ve previously dissed, I’ll let you know.
Show, don’t tell. This is one rule I must have learned subconsciously from reading good writing. I obeyed the rule pretty much by instinct, albeit imperfectly. One place I tended to falter was in writing emotional scenes. My critique partner Kasie West brought it to my attention. She said, “Don’t tell me how to feel in this scene, just show me how your character feels, and I will feel it too.”
Never use three words when one will do. This is one of my delights in writing. I love to take a good sentence and pare it down to its essence, thereby creating a better sentence. Make every word pull its weight. Watch your use of adverbs and adjectives, as these are clues to places where you can probably find a stronger word to take the place of two or more weaker ones. (Notice I did not say never use adjectives and adverbs.)
Avoid passive voice. Yes, of course, there are times when passive voice works, but use it rarely. You can almost always strengthen a sentence by rewording to remove the passive. (Ha! I first wrote that last sentence in passive voice and had to edit! )
Vary sentence length. I can’t remember where I first read this, but the rule was that usually you should start a paragraph with shorter sentences, use longer in the middle, and then shorter again at the end. I don’t always do that, but I always try to avoid repetition of too many sentences of equal length. Good writing has rhythm and flow.
Read your work aloud. I don’t like to hear my voice. Also, since I spend most of my writing time alone, I felt ridiculous talking to myself in an empty house. But once I got over that, I found that reading aloud helped me refine the rhythm and flow I spoke about above. Listen for the music. Reading aloud also helped me spot quite a few typos.
Print it out. Like the rule above, I resisted this one. I’m an ink and paper miser, but my eyes can take reading on a monitor for only so long. So, I started printing out chapters to edit. Lo and behold, clumsy sentences, typos, paragraph length, and a dozen other things I missed on the virtual page, jumped off the printed page. [Update: If you have an e-reader, upload your writing to it and read it that way, which also helps you spot errors.]
Use “creative” dialogue tags sparingly. I believe this is more acceptable in some genre writing, but in general, “said” or “asked” should be your most used dialogue tags. If you want your reader to know your character raged, then make that evident in the words and gestures he uses. If you want your character to say something sweetly, have her smile and bat her eyelashes. I do occasionally allow myself a “whispered.”
Make every plot element count. Be “ecologically” sound and use every bit of your wordage. If you give us a character or setting detail, make it meaningful to the whole story. In my novel The Brevity of Roses, when I first introduce Meredith, I tell the reader that she grows roses, but that’s not just a meaningless detail. Gardening is essential to understanding her character, and the imagery of roses, and what they represent, carries through to the last chapter. Every person, place, or thing must earn its right to be in your story and must be consistent with all other story elements, as well as with characterization.
Keep the story moving. This is a touchy subject for some of us because we love lingering in our character’s head, or waxing poetic about the sea, but if we do that too long we risk making the reader “skip to the good stuff.” Learning the proper balance between exposition, description, narrative, dialogue, and summary is an art. One I hope I’m learning well. (Tip: In chapter 6 of his The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes Jack M. Bickham has a good explanation of balancing what he calls “delivery systems.”)
Now, it’s your turn. Do you agree or disagree with the rules on my list? Did I neglect to mention your most important rule?