In the past however many years, I’ve read a whole lot of work, in various stages of development.
From rough drafts to polished manuscripts to submissions to my editing blog to self-published books to books published by the big guns, I’ve collated a variety of thoughts on writing, most of it in terms of the mechanics of the language itself as it pertains to commercial fiction (novels and short stories), that have helped me along my way—some of which I had to learn the hard way!
Without further ado, here are some of my rules for writing:
I. Memorize the Turkey City Lexicon, which includes a lot of the fundamentals such as Show, Don’t Tell and Said Bookism. And take it to heart. Even if you don’t write science fiction. I’m a terribly picky reader, and fully half of the criticisms I have for others’ writing could be avoided if authors did this.
II. If it can be said with fewer words without changing the content, do it. If you haven’t pored through your entire work to make sure you’ve already done this, your work isn’t ready for publication. “Good” isn’t good enough–it should be perfect.
Please note that in this case, tone and voice are part of the content.
III. There is no such thing as an acceptable typo, except those you have no control over due to other people (or annoying computer programs) formatting your stuff. They’re going to happen, but it’s your job to make sure they don’t.
Note: in the original version of this that I posted on the ABNA forums many moons ago, I’d used “poured” instead of “pored” above. I should have caught it!
IV. Parentheses should never be used in commercial fiction. After all, when was the last time you saw them used in a brilliant work (aside from this one)? As well, be judicious in your use of the emdash—like this—and in clauses separated by commas.
V. Rhetorical questions are bad. Wouldn’t you agree?
VI. You don’t generally realize what you’re bad at. This is why someone other than you should edit your work—someone experienced and diligent. (I, for example, am terrible with commas. No matter how I study the rules, my brain has a steadfast block on just exactly how the little monsters should be used.)
Professional editors range from cheap to expensive, from excellent to total crap. Do your homework and try not to get burned!
VII. Adverbs are the enemy. If it ends in “ly”, you have only two reasonable options:
1. Cut it, and lose nothing in the edit.
2. Cut it, and change the verb to something more appropriate.
Example: “He walked cockily into the room.” = “He sauntered into the room.” (Or better yet, “He sauntered in.”)
i. Every adverb isn’t the enemy. Just 99.999% of them. If you include an adverb in your prose, you’d better have a damned good reason why it’s there instead of a better verb.
ii. “Really” is the worst of them. “Actually” and “totally” are almost as bad. “Very”, while not an “ly” adverb, sucks just as much. “Suddenly”, “quickly”, “immediately”, and so forth are pernicious.
iii. “A little”, “a lot”, etc, all count as adverbs for these purposes.
iv. Approximations are often overused. “Six feet four or so” vs. “six-four”. “About two hundred pounds” instead of “heavy-set”. Etc. “About”, “approximately”, “nearly”, “almost”… They’re all adverbs whether they look it or not.
VIII. Pick a character POV for any given scene, and if that character doesn’t or shouldn’t have knowledge of it, then it shouldn’t be included in that scene. …and ideally, scenes should never have to be re-written for this, because the author picks a POV going in.
a. This means that sensory verbs such as “he saw”, “he smelt”, “he felt”, etc are all redundant, because the description while inside the character’s POV means that of course the POV character saw/smelt/felt whatever it is.
b. This also means that anything the POV character doesn’t experience shouldn’t be in the scene.
c. Omniscient POV works well for movies. It rarely works for fiction.
IX. “Started to”, “began to”, (or replace “to” with “[verb]ing” in either case), etc. can all be cut without any loss of content. “Started to strum the banjo” and “strummed the banjo” are functionally equivalent, but the latter is better because it is more condensed. The one exception to this is that sometimes, it’s important to the story that the action is interrupted—in this case “started to” might be appropriate.
X. Dialogue tags (“he said”) should be limited to “said,” (and perhaps—once in a while, whispered or muttered, maybe—and always without an accompanying adverb,) but can often be replaced with an action tag, thus allowing another opportunity to add characterization, or to remove unneeded words.
“Did you see this?” Bob said, pointing to the newspaper.
“No,” Laura said. “What is it?”
Connie slammed her hand on the table. “Can we not talk politics at breakfast, please?” she said.
“Did you see this?” Bob pointed to the newspaper.
“No,” Laura raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”
Connie slammed her hand on the table. “Can we not talk politics at breakfast, please?”
Both are clear, but the latter is both less clunky and adds a touch to Laura’s character.
XI. Any instance in which your character is waffling is an indicator that you weren’t sure what to write. Shakespeare barely pulled it off with Hamlet. You are not Shakespeare. Pretentions toward Shakespearean wafflism are rarely justified, and successfully accomplished almost never.
XII. Most conjugations of “to be” make your work more passive and less active. This is a Bad Thing™ in most cases. Indeed, “was” should only appear in dialogue, nowhere else.
XIII. Speaking of active vs. passive, check your work for passive voice. If you can add “by zombies” to a sentence and it remains grammatically correct, it’s passive voice and should be changed.
Example: “It’s passive voice and should be changed…by zombies.” I often use passive voice when critiquing others’ work, because it softens the blow to some degree.
XIV. Similes are like poop on toast–they ruin the otherwise sublime. Yuck. Analogies are a close second, and rarely have a place. Hyperbole might be worse, but might not be, and either way needs to be cut. Metaphors of the “as though” or “as if” variety are equally crap. Strive to describe without borrowing imagery/sensation from other phenomena.
XV. If it doesn’t add to the plot or to characterization, cut it. And if it adds to only one and not the other, then you might want to consider cutting it anyway.
Example: “She clenched her buttocks and copied the advice from the board” is only a good thing if (a) you’re writing a comedy and (b) you want to portray the character in question as a tight-ass apple-polisher.
XVI. Show, don’t tell. “Protagonista was cold” is not as good as “Protagonista shivered.”
XVII. Monolithic evil is boring, but not as boring as monolithic good.
XVIII. Looking in the mirror to get a first person POV character description is about the most cliché thing you can include in your book. Cheating by use of a pond or window is not better.
XIX. “And then”, “next he/she/it”, and so forth are the enemy. Sequentiality is almost always inferred without help from the author, and such phrases drag. If necessary, “and then” can almost always be replaced with “then”. “Before” often falls into this category as well, and any instance of its use should invite further scrutiny.
XX. Redundant phraseology sucks. “He shrugged his shoulders.” “She nodded her head.” “He blinked his eyes.” “He chewed his food.” None of these sentences should continue past their second word.
XXI. “Echoes” are bad. Avoid the use of the same obvious noun, adjective, verb, or phrase in close proximity. (Innocuous words like “the” and “an” might be an exception, but don’t overdo them, either!)
XXII. Big paragraphs are always worse than small paragraphs. Ditto long sentences vs. short.
XXIII. Reflexive pronouns are almost never good. “Himself”, “herself”, “itself”, “themselves”, etc, should be avoided.
XXIV. “Indeed” almost indubitably needs cutting. (As do “almost” and “indubitably”.)
XXV. Watch your tense. “Shooting his gun, he closed the door” = bad.
XXVI. “Notice that,” “Clearly,” “Without fail,” “You can see that,” and so forth fall into a category I call “overfamiliar douchbaggery.” It is a very rare narrator that addresses the reader directly and gets away with it.
XXVII. Beware phonetic clunkery. “Stop,” “hop,” “shop,” and “pop,” should never appear in the same paragraph.
XXVIII. Avoid onomatopoeia.
XXIX. Never use a perfectly good English word to mean something other than what it means.
XXX. Be judicious with your ellipses…
XXXI. Double punctuation and capslockism are a no-no. YOU MEAN THIS ISN’T THE INTERWEBS!!?!!
XXXII. Redundancies are often difficult to spot. They consist for the most part of:
a. Sentences that repeat what is already said in other sentences.
b. Paragraphs that repeat what is already said in other paragraphs.
XXXIII. If you’re making up words, you’re probably making an editor, agent, or reader roll their eyes. The English language is sufficiently diverse without your thinking it just isn’t special enough to describe your [insert whatever idea you think is too good for the English language here]. Fantasy readers (and editors) are more tolerant of this, but that doesn’t mean you should be!
XXXIV. Don’t use semicolons; chances are that even if you know how, your prospective agent/publisher thinks you don’t.
XXXV. Taking two paragraphs to describe a building or a person drags the story to an unacceptable level. Give exactly enough detail for the imagination to fill in, and no more.
XXXVI. Colloquialisms in dialogue (from “‘Sup” to “Ayuh” to “yer cheatin’ heart…”) are unacceptable—dialect should be conveyed through word choice. And I’m gonna stand behind that statement.
XXXVII. Always say what it is before you give details. “Ziebart grinned. The enormous cat stood…” is more confusing than, “The enormous cat grinned. Ziebart stood and…”
XXXVIII. “Seemed to” is poison. Never use it. Ever. And don’t cheat by trying to get away with “appeared to”. If something seems to have happened to the POV character, then for the purposes of that scene it happened and should be presented as such.
XXXIX. Characters with tiny roles should have tiny descriptions. If all he does is take your protagonists’ coat, he shouldn’t have a two-paragraph description.
XL. Honorable characters with despicable careers are oxymoronic, and thus insulting to the reader.
XLI. As with all rules, everything here can be broken. However, breaking the rules because you don’t know them or can’t be bothered to follow them is not going to work out well. If you break a rule, do it with intent and to achieve a specific purpose that cannot be better achieved within the rules.
So, dear reader, what did I miss?
Thank you for these! I tend to use words like “suddenly” or “immediately” when writing fast-paced action scenes, because I’ve never been sure of how to do it without them. As far as sensory verbs, that’s been a problem for me as well. I tend to dwell on sensory moments. Ah! Another word I overuse, i.e. “He took a moment to”, “we stopped for a moment”…so many moments which need to be scrapped!
And I particularly like the idea of adding “by zombies” to a sentence to check for passive voice lol.
I’ll take all this advice to heart when I start the editing process. Thanks =)
Just take it as that–advice.
People should know the rules, as best as they damned well can. But they should also break them, on and with purpose, when it suits the work.
I’d add one very general rule: if you’re bored writing it, I’m going to be bored reading it. I don’t need to read “he filled the gas tank, then replaced the pump on its cradle before screwing on the gas cap and crossing the parking lot”, etc, etc until he finally pays for his gas and drives away without incident. Unless he finds the last piece of the amulet in the gas station bathroom, just write “he stopped for gas and continued on.”
Yes, absolutely! You have to trust your audience enough to let them fill in the details, especially the mundane details. This is perhaps not said quite well enough with rule 15!
I liked these. I always enjoy your writing, so was happy to bump into your website while “working” (translation: surfing the web).
Here are my rules. A bit more macro, but some value to them, I think. ;o)
Exactly right, Michaelbrent!
These are rules that work for me–and I violate them sometimes. They’re not in the slightest meant as rules for everyone.
I love your suggestion about active vs. passive voice and how to recognize it! For someone like me, who hates zombies, it’s a perfect tool.
I think my biggest rule pertains to grammar. I DETEST IT when an author, using the omniscient authorial voice, makes a grammatical error that is not, in some way, relevant to character revelation. An author can use a colloquialism in the omniscient, but ONLY if there is a reason for it, or it adds something to the text. I clarify this on my blog in my post about grammar.
As a writer, editor, slush pile reader for a lit agency, English teacher, I can say with absolute certainty, grammar and the knowledge of how to bend it are crucial to “art.” I mean how the frack do you create a “voice” if you don’t know how your style should utilize the rules or discard them?