Monday, August 18, 2014

Rules, shmules

Photo by: Scott Kleinberg, Creative Commons
Writers are always teaching me, whether they know it or not. I’ve been editing and beta-reading manuscripts for a number of people this summer, and their words make me re-evaluate some ideas I held firmly for some time. And I keep coming to the same dilemma: at what point does trimming text and adhering to the current stylistic conventions begin to trample legitimate expressions of writing style?

Every writer has heard of Elmore’ Leonard’s “Ten Rules for Good Writing.” You can Google them easily enough.

And it seems to me that the “rules” thrown around by those who claim to be publishing professionals and insiders are often contradictory. For instance, real professional authors don’t use adverbs much, if at all. I once heard an author in a radio interview claim proudly (there’s another adverb, damnit!) that he only had three or four adverbs in his whole book.

Then there’s the dilemma over dialog. “Never use a word other than ‘said’ to describe dialog,” advised Mr. Leonard. Also, never modify “said” with an adverb.

Meanwhile, I read some time ago that a large number of grade-school teachers across the US encouraged their pupils never to use “said” in their compositions. They could use “exclaimed,” “asked,” “replied,” “retorted” or anything else that made sense, but not “said.”

In providing a beta-read for a good friend’s new manuscript, I couldn’t bring myself to follow either rule. Now, there were times that I thought “said” was the right word, and I suggested that to my best-selling friend. But sometimes, as a writer, you want to describe how someone spoke. So you need either a stronger verb—which breaks Mr. Leonard’s Rule #3, or you need to describe with an adverb, which breaks rule number 4, or longer description, which breaks rule number 9 (“Don’t go into great detail describing places and things”).

Probably Leonard’s most famous rule is “Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose.’” Usually, it’s good advice. If something happens suddenly, then you can usually find a stronger verb to describe it.
He came in suddenly.He burst into the room.And you never need to write “it burst suddenly.” A burst is a sudden thing.
But sometimes, “suddenly” is the right word. Here’s an example from my first book, The Bones of the Earth:
[Photius’] staff was glowing white, and [Javor] suddenly understood it had been the source of the white flashes.
I suppose I could have written it differently, but this phrase most efficiently conveys the meaning to the reader—that the character understood a cause-and-effect relationship in an instant, after a period when he did not. I could have written “the glowing stick made him realize in an instant….” But that would have taken more words.

In praise of the cliché

In my own writing, I try to avoid clichés (like the plague, right). For a new client, I explained that removing or replacing clichés was part of my standard level of service, and she stopped me immediately (damn, another adverb). Clichés are part of her style. They’re part of the way she speaks and she wants her little expressions in her written work, too.

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That made me think about clichés, and alter my opinion. Really, they’re a form of jargon. Words can have more than one meaning, and any phrase, sentence or longer writing works on several levels. It conveys the literal message, as well as memories and associations. That’s how advertising works—by associating a word, a message or an image, or a combination of them, with positive feelings. “Buy this stuff and you’ll be happy.”

We can think of clichés as our modern social jargon. Jargon does more than convey a specific meaning within a narrow group: it identifies the speaker or writer as someone in the know, part of the club. Current slang and clichés serve the same purpose. They tell the audience that the user is up to date, part of the in crowd. Using last year’s slang is also dangerous—it tells the audience you’re out of date.

In fact, using a cliché well may be the most efficient way to achieve your communications goal: to get a particular reaction from your audience.

And the way people use quotation marks in writing, or air quotes when the say a well-used phrase, is akin to a bibliographic entry. Quotation marks essentially mean that the words they contain are not the writer’s original work, but someone else’s. The writer or speaker who uses them is giving credit, or at least, admitting they’re using another person’s expression.

Maybe there is room in the professional, credible publishing world for description, for using clichés and words other than “said.” If we all follow the same style conventions, isn’t all writing going to seem the same? Isn’t diversity what we want?

Have I blown my credibility out of the water by daring to support that pariah of the writing world, the cliché? By arguing against Elmore Leonard?

“That’s just the way I roll,” I thought suddenly.


  1. Very good post. I use "said" sparingly (adverb) but also salt with "ask," "reply," and other verbs of dialog minimally (another adverb.) What I attempt is to remove the "said" with an action tag to let the reader know who is speaking. That is really what "said" is used to elaborate - who is speaking. What really grates my nerves are those who preface the dialog, to wit: He looked at her and said, "Where are you going?" which to me, is like a fore-shadowing and is like the character saying "I'm going to say something, now listen." Cliches are something that the reader is familiar with and gives a familiar touch to the story -- but use them rarely (wow, another adverb.)

  2. I'm reposting this, because it didn't show up with the captcha last time... But basically... all I can say is that sometimes the cliche is a gift (of course I say that).. and you never --- REPEAT --- NEVER --- want to look a gift-horse in the mouth! Great post! But I was always taught that quotation marks go around all dialogue no matter who is doing the "speaking" otherwise the reader gets lost as to who is speaking to whom.

  3. The only thing I ever learned from my English teacher (other than not to give him lip if I didn't want a cane across something very tender) was that rules can be broken if one if making a point. I

  4. Far too many rules. I say break them and see what happens!!

  5. Nice one, Scott. I agree with everything you've said; I'd sum it up by saying that something either works, or it doesn't; if you're a good writer you can get away with breaking rules, and if you're not then adhering to them won't make you a better one. Only half an hour ago I was trying to find another way of writing about someone 'suddenly' realising something. Now, I shall go and stick that 'suddenly' in!!!

  6. Nice post Scott, with some interesting points raised - thanks so much for sharing this.

  7. Nicely put. I think there is a time for everything.