Musings writing

Tools, Not Rules

So, one of the supposed Rules of Writing is that one should use “active” verbs instead of “passive” verbs, and usually this boils down to avoiding forms of the verb to be. In an effort to drill this into our tender high school brains, a teacher gave us a handout with the following sentence:

It is the act itself that is important.

We were told to improve it by turning it into the following:

The act demonstrates self-importance.


Let’s pretend briefly that those two sentences actually mean the same thing.

The first one, to me, has a nice rhythm to it, a bit of grandeur. It might be a touch cliche or melodramatic, but it could move me in the right context.

The second replaces is, which at least does not call attention to itself, with the long, ugly verb demonstrates, which has about as much pizzazz as an office cubicle. Then it changes a respectable adjective into an awkward hyphenated noun. The is and the it that doesn’t refer to anything may be gone, but so is my interest.

Of course, they don’t mean the same thing, which says sad things about our educational system, but that’s beside the point I’m making right now. (Even if I were to revise to, say, a more accurate “The act matters; the motive doesn’t,” I think I’d lose something.)

There are tons of supposed “rules” of writing out there. Some of them (maybe even avoid be verbs) I accept as, y’know, guidelines that can be profitably broken for sufficiently good artistic reasons but that really are wise to attend to most of the time. Some of them I think aren’t quite that but do provide useful ways of analyzing or thinking about one’s work. Some of them are just emu excrement. I doubt that any of them are absolute.

Sometimes, if you’re looking to get past gatekeepers who believe in the rules, or appeal to audiences who do, you’ll have to follow them fairly closely (not even always then; people read with the backs of their heads as well as the fronts, and gripping writing has a stronger appeal than “correct” writing. I think lots of rule-based critiques are rationalizations for “this didn’t grab me.”)

Do I think that there are probably safe-ish generalizations to be made about what works and doesn’t work in writing? Yes, but I don’t think we know nearly as many of them as we sometimes think we do. I think that sufficiently smart science studying different kinds of audiences’ reactions to different kinds of writing would yield all sorts of insight into “what makes good writing.” But even these insights would not be absolutes. The study of people (as I understand it) tends to yield trends, tendencies, averages, not RULES and LAWS. I also think that doing too much research on this would be a waste of money to get a bunch of information that would be toxic to writers who want to create authentic, creative work.

But there’s a reason these rules proliferate, and I think that reason may be fear–fear when faced with an empty page, or fear when faced with an empty mind after reading something you’re supposed to evaluate.

I would say—number one, on a global level, embrace uncertainty. Try not to judge yourself or others based on how someone said writing should be. But, number two, when you’re writing, if you’re too daunted by endless possibilities and have no idea what to do and no way of knowing if what you’re doing is any good, accept constraints provisionally—-experimentally—whether that is accepting some rule of writing that appeals to you or trying to write a poem in a certain form.

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