13 Ways You’re Writing Wrongly

Inspired by K. M. Weiland’s wonderful post, “How Not to Be a Writer: 15 Signs You’re Doing It Wrong,” I decided to make my own list.

My list differs from hers, since it’s borne of my own experiences. Moreover, I’m sure there are plenty of unlisted items I’m still getting wrong, that hinder me from greater success.

Arranged in rough order of the writing process, here are a baker’s dozen ways you’re writing wrongly:

  1. You’re not actually fitting one word up against another. In other words, you’re not writing any fiction. Maybe you’re easily distracted, doing too much research, talking about being a writer while not writing, or just intimidated by the prospect. Doesn’t matter. If you’re not writing, you’re never going to be a writer.
  1. You bought your limousine and mansion before the advance arrived. Let’s set some realistic expectations here. Most likely, you’re going to labor in obscurity for a while, probably years. First time best-sellers are very rare. Heck, best-selling authors themselves are rare. Only a tiny percentage of writers support themselves with their writing.
  1. You’re copying someone else’s style. After all, (you’re thinking), if it’s working for James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, Nora Roberts, John Grisham, etc., then it should work for you. Inconvenient fact—readers already have a Patterson, Rowling, Roberts, Grisham, etc. Create your own style.
  1. You’re sure the rules don’t apply to you. I’m talking about those pesky rules of English and the rules of literature, stuff like spelling, grammar, and story structure. All those rules are for mere plebeians, not you, right? Actually, you’re really supposed to know them. As for always following each rule to the letter, see item 5 on my list.
  1. You obsess about following the rules. You’re now a walking dictionary and could qualify to teach English at Harvard. You chiseled the rules onto granite tablets and now pray before the tablets twice daily. Why are your stories not selling? There’s an overarching rule you forgot—you’re supposed to write stories people want to read. If some rule of writing is keeping you from telling a great story, break the rule. Just don’t go too far (see item 4).
  1. You quit before “The End.” Around the world, desk drawers and computer file directories bulge with half-finished stories. If you would be a writer, you must finish your stories.
  1. Your epidermis is on the thin side. In other words, you don’t take criticism well. The most mundane comment from someone in your critique group or from an editor will either set you off in a bout of inconsolable sobbing or high-minded ranting at the imbeciles that surround you. Get a grip. They’re not attacking your personal character; they’re trying to help you improve your story.
  1. You inhabit a world that’s just too slow to recognize the wonder that is you. How frustrating that must be, to cast your gaze at the mortals about you and see them not bowing before the genius in their midst. Well, genius, here’s a word you might look up: patience. Recognition, if it’s to come at all, will come in time.
  1. You revise edit reword amend change adjust vary redraft alter rephrase modify wordsmith rewrite your story endlessly. Sure, that story will be perfect once you work on it a bit more, just add this and delete that, change the POV character, throw in some better verbs and adjectives. It seems like it’s never quite right. True, it never will be perfect, but it could be good enough.
  1. You defy Submission Guidelines. What’s with all these editors, anyway? Each one has a particular format for story submissions, and each format is different. That’s too much trouble for a great writer like you. Your story is so superb the editor will overlook how you flouted a few guidelines, right? Nope, wrong again. Obey those guidelines.
  1. You never click ‘Submit’ or ‘Send.’ That’s because if you do, some editor might actually see your precious story, might read it, and might not like it. Better to keep your story safe with you, in your home, where nobody can ever criticize it. Uh…no. Show your baby to the world. It will be okay.
  1. Rejections are reasons to revise edit reword…rewrite your story. An editor has rejected your story, perhaps even explained why. To you, that’s a sign you must rewrite it before it can be good enough to submit elsewhere. No. Go ahead and submit it elsewhere immediately. (However, if an editor rejects your story but says she’ll accept it if you revise it in a particular way—ah, that’s the sign that you should rewrite and submit it to her again.)
  1. You’re relaxing after submitting a story. There, you just sent your story on its way. Now you can kick back and wait for the acceptance, the contract with the six-figure advance, the launch party, the book tour, and the TV interviews. Sorry, no. You’re supposed to be a writer. Start writing your next story already.

Avoid those pitfalls and you’ll be on your way to becoming a published writer. Best wishes in all your writing efforts, from—

            Poseidon’s Scribe

December 25, 2016Permalink

Too Much to Remember

Looking back over my 200 blog posts, I see I’ve presented a lot of rules about writing. The question might be occurring to you beginning writers—how am I supposed to remember all that? And you’re thinking, if I have to keep all those rules in mind, it all seems too hard. I’ll never be a writer.

Remember RulesYes, you can be a writer, most likely. If there’s a story in you that you feel passionate about, then your knowledge of all my previous ‘rules’ is secondary. Conversely, even if you’ve memorized all the rules I’ve presented, there’s little hope for you if you aren’t driven to write by something powerful inside.

I recommend, therefore, that you use that powerful drive, sustain your strong passion for the idea, and write the first draft without regard to any rule. Forget all I’ve said about using active sentence structure, showing and not telling, not overdoing dialect, etc.

Then, in your second and subsequent drafts you can edit to make sure you’re following the ‘rules.’ Write them down if you have trouble remembering them. That list of rules can be your ‘editing list’ which will help you recall what you’re checking for as you edit.

If you find your critique group, or editors, or reviewers, pointing out a certain common defect in your stories, you can add that defect to the editing list and make a point of correcting that problem in subsequent stories.

Over time you may find a funny thing begin to happen. You’ll break fewer rules in your first drafts. You’ll be able to remember more of them as you write. Or maybe not remember them consciously, but somehow know them as you madly scribble that first draft.

It’s the same phenomenon that occurred when you learned to ride a bicycle, drive a car, or play a musical instrument. The task that seemed so complicated and daunting at first, that skill you thought you couldn’t master because there was so much to remember, somehow became easier. Things you once had to concentrate on became things you do without thinking.

Recently I heard an experienced author at a writer’s conference say she could no longer turn off her inner editor while writing a first draft. She does subsequent drafts, but there are fewer things to correct than there were with her first books. If that ends up happening to you, perhaps the final step will be to give up subsequent drafts entirely, and let the first draft be the final one. Isaac Asimov claimed he didn’t edit or write second drafts. Perhaps you’ll achieve that level of skill.

Remember, you don’t have to keep all the rules in mind during the first draft. When writing that one, don’t think about rules at all; just write. Now, if I could only recall how I’m supposed to end these blog posts…so much to remember. Oh, yeah, I just sign it—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Rules Writers Break

In the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” several pirate characters throughout the movie mention the Pirate Code in reverent tones.  Late in the film, Captain Barbossa reveals, “the Code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

Today I’ll discuss writing rules your grade school teachers taught you, and whether following them is something you must do, or should do. When teaching young children, it is often best to give them black-and-white rule sets.  That’s a lot easier to understand than wishy-washy grayness, the actual messiness of the real world.

However, if you aim to be a writer of fiction for the modern marketplace, it’s time to let go of some of those rules.  If, as you write, your mind’s eye sees your teacher from long ago admonishing you to follow one of the rules below, try deliberately violating the rule even as your teacher watches.  Steady practice at this should make the visions of your teacher go away.

  • Always use complete sentences.  Not only did your teacher tell you that one, but word processing software often alerts you when you’ve created a sentence fragment.  It’s fine as a general rule, but there are times when your story requires a sentence or thought to be emphasized, to stand out.  An occasional fragment is okay when used deliberately for such a purpose.
  • Don’t begin sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But.’  Your teacher might have extended this rule to all connecting words—conjunctions—which also include ‘or’ and ‘yet.’  Traditional English sentences require that such words, when used, connect two clauses.  Again, if your second clause needs special emphasis, go ahead and set it apart with a separate sentence.  But remember to use conjunctions properly when you do, according to their meanings.
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition.  This is an ancient rule imposed by grammarians who wanted to make English more like Latin.  The rule is long discredited now, or should be.  No one buried it with more flare than Winston Churchill when he wrote, “This is the type of errant pedantry up with which I will not put.”
  • Always use proper paragraph form.  By this your teacher meant paragraphs should have topic sentences, then sentences that build on or substantiate the topic sentence, and then a concluding sentence.  Therefore, by that rule, you would never have a paragraph consisting of just one sentence.  In fiction writing you can throw that rule out.  Just tell your story.  Paragraphs are useful to break up the text, to give white space so the reader catches a breath now and then.  Paragraphs also help to group like thoughts together.  A one-sentence paragraph now and then for emphasis is permitted.
  • Don’t use long sentences.  Many people confuse these with run-on sentences, which are different, and it’s still a good rule not to use them.  The thing about long sentences is, your reader could become lost and confused wading through all the ‘ands,’ ‘buts,’ em dashes, commas, and semicolons.  Use a long sentence (over, say, forty words) if you need to, but do it for effect and make it easy to read.
  • Never split an infinitive.  Stated differently, the rule is to never split an infinitive.  This rule, too, once created controversy but the battle is pretty much over.  You may now split with impunity.  Go with what sounds right to you.

If you are still in grade school, follow the rules presented by your teacher, (knowing you can break some of them later when your grades are no longer at stake).  For the rest of you, remember your main job as a writer of fiction is to move your reader emotionally.  If the story demands it, go ahead and break some of these rules.  Like the Pirate Code, they’re more what you’d call guidelines.  Take it from that one-time pirate and noted rule-breaker…

                                                         Poseidon’s Scribe

December 9, 2012Permalink