I’m a writer and editor. I know the rules.
Don’t use “felt.” Don’t use “very.” Don’t use “-ly” words. Don’t use adverbs at all if you can help it. Don’t use to-be verbs. Show, don’t tell. Don’t use flashbacks. Start in scene. Don’t use passive voice.
These are all good rules. But there’s one more rule everybody seems to forget: too much of a good thing is a bad thing.
Too much cake and you get sick. Too much Netflix and you’ll forget to go to work. And too much emphasis on the rules and you’ll lose creativity.
Writing has rules, but it does not have absolute rules. Every single rule can be broken in the right context.
Yes, even the use of “felt” or “-ly” words.
Open a book. Any book. You know what you’ll find? Broken rules.
Let’s look at The Help, a recent, wildly-celebrated book. How does it start? “Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960.”
That may be the most boring opener in the world. I breaks a fundamental writing rule: your first line is crucial to keeping readers interested.
But it sets the scene. We’re in the 1960s and Mae Mobley is an important character. More importantly, the writer knew that the first paragraph and page are just as important as the first line, and those are far more interesting.
How about another example? I bet if I flip to any page in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, I’ll find a broken rule.
AHA! I was right! Page 266: “She felt absolutely terrible.” That’s a “felt” and an “-ly” word. Two no-nos!
And another cluster on the same page! “…the boy hurriedly gave her a cup of water. Vin sipped it thankfully, grimacing at the pain in her side. In fact, her entire body felt like it had been pummeled soundly.”
If I wrote a paragraph like that, my fellow editors and writers would shred it to pieces.
But it’s from a much-beloved novel by a much-beloved writer, published by a real company with real editors. How?
What do these writers know that we don’t?
Just this: extremes are dangerous. Very dangerous. Extremely dangerous. They feel dangerous.
Are you cringing? Then you may be part of what I call the nu-writing movement, a writing style that says certain words are always bad, not because they’re cliches or overused, but because they are bad in their own right. That they’re the marks of amateurs and “real” writers wouldn’t dare stoop so low.
Except they do.
It bothers me to see writers and editors using words like “always” and “never” because it puts absolutes on a medium based in creativity.
The nu-writing class says certain pieces of the English language are now off-limits. That’s like saying there are certain colors no true painter would ever use. EVER.
Not only is it ridiculous, but it judges writers as inferior for using words. WORDS! It cuts apart the English language and says, “Only the lower classes do this. If you do this, you’re not a real writer.”
So Brandon Sanderson isn’t a real writer? Kathryn Stockett isn’t a real writer? Countless famed, beloved, successful authors aren’t “real” writers?
You know who I mostly see enforcing nu-writing? Unpublished writers.
That’s because an inflexible set of rules does not a writer make.
What does? Guidelines. General rules, not absolutes. In math, 2+2 must always equal 4 or the world will implode. But writing is an art, a creative practice. Rules can be bent and broken in the hands of professionals.
Now I do agree with Stephen King and his book, On Writing. You must know the rules to know when and how to break them.
When you know why most people stop at a red light, you’ll understand why an ambulance doesn’t.
So we do need technical education. We do need people saying “Find another word for ‘very,'” and “Show, don’t tell.” Heck, I’m one of them! But you must also read the context, and know that every single word exists for a reason. Every single word has a time and place to be used. Even “very.”
Yes, the opposite extreme is also bad. Too much “very,” too many identical sentence patterns, too many summaries instead of scenes, and the writer should probably return to the keyboard for another draft.
But notice I said “probably.” I’m not going to judge it until I see the context of the sentence, the paragraph, and the book as a whole.
Learn the rules, teach the rules, but throw nu-writing out the window. Follow the spirit of the law, not the letter. And never look down your nose at a writer who dares to use words
And remember: a story is far greater than the sum of its parts. Readers will accept an adverb if the story is fantastic.
In fact, most readers don’t know the rules. So who are we really trying to impress?