Thoughts about writing rules

At the moment I’m mostly not writing erotica. I’m writing a mainstream historical novel. It’s meant as a literary novel, but it probably leans close to the thriller genre in places. It’s probably the best-paced thing I’ve written so far. To me that’s not the most important virtue a piece of writing can have – I’d rather read writing that told me something new, that I never knew I wanted to know – but it’s still a virtue. It’s a sign I’m getting better. 

So, for what it’s worth, this is advice on writing rules from a writer who thinks he’s getting better. 

The first thing to know is that every one of these commonly cited writing rules is bullshit. 

1. Write what you know

Generally, this means ‘write from your own experience’.

Actually, you can write what you know, but you can also can make stuff up. Last year I was writing about London in 1893. I’ve been to London, but not in 1893. No one now alive has.

But when you’re making stuff up, you should do your research, and – when you know things like what children are likely to be doing on the streets, and what the place is likely to have smelled like – then you’re ready to write. 

Even if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, you should have have the feeling that your world is lived in before you start writing. But that’s not knowledge. It’s research plus thought and imagination. 

I’ve never seen an oil lamp through pea soup smog. But I got a pretty good idea about what one looks like, and I wrote it in. 

2 The important thing is to express yourself.

You especially get this with people who write poetry. Especially the flabby, adolescent sort that talks about how lonely/sincere/in love the author is, and you know it’s a poem because it’s in short lines going down the page. But people also say it about prose. 

No. The important thing is to communicate.

To communicate you have to make sure what you write is clear (if you’re writing erotica you should be able to draw a diagram showing how the bodies are aligned, and it should be possible for the reader to do that, too).

And you have to make sure people want to read it, if you want to communicate. So don’t bore them.

3 Be in love with words.

No. Words are tools to express meaning. Be in love with your meaning.

Then use the right tools. I like a high information-to-word-count ratio, so I try to use words sparingly. 

Charles Dickens, who got paid by the word, has probably the lowest information-to-word count ratio of any writer I know, and is the writer I hate above all others.The man is always wittering on, and I simply can’t be reading him.

Similarly, some words are nicer than others. “Glabrous” is a terrific word, in its place. It means “hairless”. But if you want to say that your heroine has shaved closely or depilated, and you write, “her glabrous cunt”, most readers will have nothing conveyed by that word, and those who do, like me, will want to throw your book, or Kindle page, across the room. “Glabrous” is not an emotionally warm word, to put it mildly.

Dylan Thomas thought the most beautiful word in the English language is “aerodrome”. Not for its meaning but for its sound. I suggest that you only use words for their sound, or to prove that you know them, if you’re an acknowledged great poet. 

4 Use plain Anglo-Saxon origin words over Latinate words any day: “see”, not “perceive”. 

This is one of George Orwell’s rules. He’s got a point, about writing that should be simple but sounds like a bureaucratic report. “I was perambulating politely when 
I perceived a pugnaciously patriotic politician, and he provoked me incandescently,” could be better said as, ” When I was out walking I saw a right-wing nutcase and he pissed me off.” 

Other times, you can’t beat a bit of Latinate diction. “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” is a terrific phrase. (It’s also true, but that’s another issue.) Part of its power is that every noun and adjective is Latinate in origin until the last word: “world”.

Use the right tools. Don’t try to show off: just serve the meaning. 

Rules that try to force you into only using certain kinds of tools are stupid. Ignore them.

5 Avoid using adverbs.

“Oh, fuck off,” he said tiredly.

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