Creativity · Writing

Writing by the Rules

I read a post on Twitter the other day asking the #WritingCommunity what their feelings were in regards to using adverbs and adjectives in their work. There’s a lot of debate on this – should a writer purge all the adverbs and adjectives from their text? Can we use a few now and then? The responses to the tweet weren’t unexpected. Some people were purists (don’t use them at all) while others said occasional use was okay. I agree with the latter opinion.

A few years ago (okay, more than a few, but since I’m writing this I’ll adjust the time) when I was in the Creative Writing program at Florida State, I had a fantastic professor who opened my mind as a writer. One of the many things she taught me was this – learn all the rules so you know how to break them. That resonated with me because, up until that time, I felt that I had to write a certain way and my prose suffered.

Before meeting Elizabeth Stuckey-French in that workshop, I had been taught all the rules for proper writing. It was very stiff, very confining, very boring, and it frustrated me. I wanted to be a good writer, and everything I was taught stated that good writers follow certain rules. No deviation. It sounds cliche’, but it was a different time in public schools and I doubt any of my earlier teachers were writers or gave much thought to the actual process of writing. I’m not faulting them…hell, I think I was the only kid in any of my schools that wrote fiction and poetry. At least, I’m the only one I knew of.

But discovering that I could disregard the rules was mind-blowing. I mean, I could have learned that on my own at some point, but having someone state it directly was a revelation and allowed me to reassess my writing, the way I approached it, the things I could do with it.

The way I see it now, telling a story is like painting on a canvas. I can mix and match different styles, use different perspectives, tell stories in all sorts of interesting ways. I felt as if I was let off a chain that had kept me restrained to the backyard and now I could roam the neighborhood and explore.

So whenever someone asks a question about rules or what writers should and shouldn’t do, I respond with the advice I learned back in school. Writers should never limit themselves. Our medium is words and words are like little brush strokes on a page. We mix them up, rearrange them, experiment with style and form, swirl things around into new and interesting formats. We are artists and artists should never be afraid to experiment.

And before I close this out, I highly recommend the writings of Elizabeth Stuckey-French. She’s a wonderful writer and an inspiring teacher.


One thought on “Writing by the Rules

  1. I see this one come up all the time, both when I was still on Twitter and in books on how to write.

    My general answer is the same as always; I treat the “rules” of writing as VERY good guidelines, but not something carved in stone and to be worshiped. Even the writing books have all kinds of exceptions on various rules. Adverbs and adjectives are OK in dialog because that’s how people talk (contradiction anyone? LOL)… Telling is OK instead of showing if it’s a section that just quickly moving the story to the next point, etc…

    There are several well known authors that break the rules regularly also, an some people see that as an excuse to ignore them. Advice my Kenpo teachers gave comes to mind there; “You have to be able to follow the rules so you know when it’s OK to break them”.

    Bottom line, I do my best to use stronger verbs and describe with minimal adjectives, but again, it’s not an altar to worship at.

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