Sometimes during our seminars or when we’re working at the NICoE, we are asked about rules. It seems people like to have a set of rules to follow when they write. Among the instructors in the VWP we agree that rules do matter, but we disagree a bit on the issue of which rules matter.
John Gardner wrote in his classic book The Art of Fiction, that “What the beginning writer ordinarily wants is a set of rules on what to do and what not to do in writing fiction. As we’ll see, some general principles can be set down and some very general warnings can be offered; but on the whole the search for aesthetic absolutes is a misapplication of the writer’s energy.” I think he’s talking about what makes writing good or bad from an aesthetic (or taste) standpoint, rather than some rules on how to make your writing simply better technically.
Orwell’s famous Politics and the English Language essay provides a few rules on making your writing better, clearer.
One needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never us a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
This morning, in the New York Times Book Review, Colson Whitehead takes a stab it the idea of rules on How to Write. I particularly like Rule Number 8.