|Picture from stock-xchng: Doodle desks 2|
In high school and my early years of college, I did really well in all my English and writing classes. I had a decent grasp of grammar and was able to organize my thoughts well. I always got good grades on my papers, so I thought I was an excellent writer. Then I took an upper division technical writing class.
When I got my first paper back, my grade was good, but much lower than I expected and lower than what I was used to. I was a little taken back. I did everything the professor told me to do, and there was no explanation given for the lower grade, so I took my paper to him to find out what I had done wrong.
The teacher looked over my paper but couldn’t give me any reason for my score. All he said was it just wasn’t as good as some of the other papers. I was frustrated because I wanted to learn. I didn’t want to be an okay writer. I wanted to be a damn good writer like I had thought I was, and if there was something wrong with what I wrote, I wanted to figure out how to make it better. But my professor didn’t give my any help, just a vague, “it’s good, but just not good enough” answer with no suggestions on how to make it better. I got through that class getting the same type of grade on every single paper and learned nothing.
I just shrugged it off. Every other teacher I had seemed to like my writing, so maybe this one professor just didn’t like my style. Writing is subjective, right?
But then I got to graduate school, and my Ph.D advisor didn’t like my writing either, and she also couldn’t explain why. She just told me to read a lot of published papers and try to emulate them. I tried and failed. In five years, she never liked my writing, and although my lab-mates were nice about it, I could tell they agreed with her.
There was something wrong with the way I wrote, and it wasn’t grammar or organization, but something else, and no one could tell me what it was or how to fix it. It was so frustrating. I wanted to be a great writer, a professional level writer, but I couldn’t figure out how to improve my writing.
|Some said-isms created by me in Wordle|
I realized that there is something to good writing that is beyond grammar and organization. There is style, and having a good, mature style is important in writing. I think there was something wrong with my writing in college and grad school. I got the basics down, but what I had failed to do was develop a strong style.
Finding those rules breathed hope back into me. Finally, I could see what makes some writing stronger than others. Finally, there was a way for me to examine my writing, discover my weaknesses, and become better. There wasn’t just some nebulous problem with my writing that I could never fix. I could develop a strong style and learn to be a better writer.
The “Rules” of Writing
There are more rules to writing narrative than the stylistic rules, like: avoid prologues, don’t start with waking up, show don’t tell, avoid clichés, etc. They come from common pitfalls made by beginning writers. None of these rules are absolutes, just things to keep in mind. Every story breaks at least one of these rules, but that is okay. The idea is not to follow them without question, but to stop and think about if what you are doing is best for the story or just what is easiest for you as a writer.
I’ve had arguments (on writer’s forums) with those who are against any rules, and I do tend to get frustrated with those who believe that they are harmful to writers. The rules showed me that writing isn’t something that you are either good at or not, but a craft that can be learned. There is nothing in writing that can’t be learned, and that gives me hope.
Sure there are writers who do just fine never learning or thinking about the rules, and that is great for them. But what about those like me?
This is what frustrates me about those who are adamantly opposed “the rules” because it either implies elitism; “some people are just not good enough to be writers and there is nothing they can do about it.” Or it gives new writers permission not to try to learn the craft; “There is no such thing as well-written. It is all subjective, so there is nothing really to learn. Just write however want and don’t worry about it.” Both of these attitudes are can be pitfalls that keep beginning writers from developing.
I don’t think it hurts any writer to learn “the rules” and understand them, so when they break them (and everyone does), they do so deliberately and for a good reason. That way the broken rule will strengthen the writing instead of weakening it.
Happy writing! J