What is the One Immutable Rule of Writing?

There is only one, single decree for you to obey as you write

What is the One Immutable Rule of Writing?If you spend any time at all learning about writing and working to improve your craft you will have heard all kinds of advice of what to do or not do. These are often presented as rules, incontrovertible requirements for us to follow. If we don’t, we will commit a cardinal sin of writing – and no serious writer wants to do that.

Unfortunately after a while we begin to hear rules that contradict one another. One person says to never do this and another tells us it’s okay or maybe even recommended. As an example of this insanity, consider some of the supposed rules I’ve heard about dialogue tags, that is, identifying the speaker:

  • Let the context indicate the speaker so you don’t need to use tags
  • Tag every piece of dialogue.
  • Avoid tags whenever possible.
  • Only use the tags of “said” and “asked.”
  • Never use “asked” for a question; use “said” instead.
  • Always write “said” and avoid all other tags.
  • You can have up to four pieces of dialogue without attribution.
  • Have no more than three pieces of dialogue without attribution.

Plus each person who advocates one of these rules pronounces it with the fervor of absoluteness. It makes my head spin.

These conflicting rules leave me in a quandary of which guru to follow. Whose advice wins? Recently one person who I respect greatly said to not use “then” in a narrative. It is implied and therefore a wasted word. Another person, who I also respect, politely responded, “I disagree,” and I’m sure he was holding back what he really thought.

Through all of this – and it took me too long to figure it out – I’ve realized there are no rules, not really. There are writing guidelines, recommendations, and best practices, but absolute rules do not exist – not really.

Every writing rule I’ve ever heard has been successfully broken by someone at some time. This means that the one rule of writing is: There are no rules. The one rule of writing is: There are no rules. Click To Tweet

Now don’t get carried away and disregard every piece of advice you hear on how to be a better writer. Don’t assume you can do whatever you want and get away with it.

Study writing. Learn the conventions. Navigate contradiction, and never assume anything is absolute – because it’s not. Whenever possible follow recommendations and adhere to best practices, but don’t be a slave to them either. Know expectations, and if you decide to ignore one, do so in an informed way and for the right reasons.

Now go write, and have fun.

How Can a Writer Conform to Industry Expectations and Still Stand Out?

Trying to follow every bit of writing advice can push writers into a no-win situation

How Can a Writer Conform to Industry Expectations and Still Stand Out?I listen to many podcasts, follow blogs, read magazines, attend webinars, and study books  so that I can become a better writer. But somedays I wonder if it helps. Somedays my head spins with confusion, and I want to give up – not give up writing but give up trying to figure out the “right” way to do it.

My biggest struggle comes from seeking a balance of the seemingly ironclad, unwavering set of industry expectations with the near constant plea from agents and editors to submit something unique. How can we rise above all others while doing what everyone else does?

The answer, I am realizing, is that we can’t. And that’s the rub.

Slavishly following today’s “standard writing procedures” makes our work formulaic, predictable, and boring. Yet in breaking from those requirements we run the very likely outcome of rejection for not fitting in. Either way, we lose.

In trying to obey the dictates of publishing experts I have sacrificed my vision, degraded my voice, and sapped my spirit. Yet in going with my instinct I have encountered criticism and rejection. The first is disheartening; the second is discouraging.Make informed writing decisions: break rules when you must; follow them when you can. Click To Tweet

I’m now charting a middle ground. Yes, I will still seek to conform, to obey today’s expectations. But I won’t do so blindly. Going forward I will make informed decisions on my writing, choosing to confidently break the rules when my instinct tells me I must, while following them without question whenever I can.

The result, I trust, will be conforming enough to garner attention but differing enough to stand out.

What writing “rule” really bugs you? How can you make your writing stand out?

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Why Writers Need to Develop Their Writing Style

Our writing style will help us find work, sell our writing, and grow an audience.

When people hire me they often say “I like your writing style” or share some similar sentiment. (I do content marketing, ghostwriting, commercial freelance work, and whatnot.)

I’m glad they appreciate how I write. It helps us start our working relationship from a good place. At the same time I wonder what they mean.

Why Writers Need to Develop Their Writing StyleIf you asked me what my writing style is, I would sputter at my response. I strive to write logically. I work to have a smooth flow from word to word, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. I use complete sentences, avoid clichés, and like to write in triplets. Occasionally my words have a playful tone, and I hope my writing is always interesting. Does this describe my style? Or does this merely delineate my technique? Is there a difference?

Regardless, I know that having a writing style is critical to me finding work. So I’m glad I have one. My writing style has emerged over time. How that happened for me is likely the same as for any writer.

We need to:

Put in the Time: I have logged my 10,000 hours and long ago hit the million-word mark, both milestones that writers must reach. All writers need to invest in the craft of writing. This takes time.

Write in Public: I blog, and I write articles. My work is out there for everyone to see. Many of the people who hire me have read my words for years but not everyone. My last ghostwriting client was a referral. Until that moment he had never heard of me, but he found my words online, liked my writing style, and hired me.

Get Feedback: When we write in public we sometimes receive criticism – both constructive or otherwise. We can also seek feedback from people we trust, such as other writers, a critique group, beta readers, editors, agents, and publishers. Their reaction to our words today helps make our words tomorrow better.

Strive to Improve: Not all aspects of our writing style are necessarily good. Everyone has weak spots. So we work to write better. As we do our style morphs into something grander. How I write today, though similar to last year, is better. The same is true for anyone who writes with intention.

Even if we don’t know our writing style, the people who read our words know what it is. Perhaps they can’t articulate it any more then we can, but they know our work when they see it.

Having an engaging writing style will help us find work, sell our writing, and serve an audience. That’s why I write. How about you?

What is your writing style? What have you done to hone it? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.An engaging writing style will help us find work, sell our writing, and serve an audience. Click To Tweet

Each of Us Has Only 26 Letters to Use: How We Use Them is Key

I’m not musically inclined, and that may be an understatement. I’ve always been in awe of composers and songwriters. They have so few notes to work with. It seems after a while, they would run out of combinations, that everything that could be created, would be created, with no arrangements left for anyone else. Obviously, I don’t know music.

However, writing is not much different. In English, we have only twenty-six letters to work with. Our goal as writers is to take those letters and form words, use words to make sentences, sentences to comprise paragraphs, and paragraphs to produce articles, essays, short stories, and books. The possibilities of what we can to with these letters are limitless.

We will never get to a point where everything that can be written, has been written. There will always be something more for us to say, other combinations of letters waiting for us to arrange them as only we can.

How we combine these twenty-six letters is a matter of our style; it is our writing voice. Writing is a creative art, one we will likely pursue with passion our entire life. Though anyone who is literate can write, few will. Only a minority will take the opportunity afforded by a mere twenty-six letter alphabet to create something unique to share with others.

May we never look back in discouragement at all that others have written, but instead may we look forward in anticipation at all that waits for us to write.

Now go write.

Does the thought of having only twenty-six letters scare you? Or do the endless possibilities inspire you?

Avoid Big Word Syndrome

Selecting the right word is important for writers. In fact, aside from using the correct punctuation to frame those words, it is the only thing. This may seem shocking but at the most basic level, all we do as writers is figure out what word comes next. Then we insert punctuation for clarity. The words we choose are what matters most.

A sloppy writer will grab the first word that comes to mind; a diligent writer makes sure it is the right word, while a perfectionist agonizes over every selection. To aid in finding the right words, a dictionary is their constant companion.

When I started writing, I was more often diligent than sloppy. Unfortunately, my diligence soon assumed the wrong focus. I thought using bigger words made my writing better, that sending readers to the dictionary, scratching their heads, was a good thing. This, I reasoned, would surely earn their respect for my command of the English language and my soaring intellect. I was delusional on both counts.

I was writing to impress, not communicate. I fell victim to big word syndrome.

If a big word is the best word, then use it. However, if a smaller word works just as well, grab it, and if shorter fits better, it’s a win for everyone. (I suppose an exception might be high-level academic work and scholarly reviews but only if your goal is to impress others.)

When I read my past work, even from a few years ago, I often shutter at my fascination with big word syndrome. I’m getting better at it, but I’m a work in progress as I strive to improve.

As writers isn’t this the case for all of us? We are a work in progress, determined to get better.

Have you ever struggled with big word syndrome? What aspect of your writing are you striving to improve?

Are You Alliterate? Four Tips for Successful Alliteration

Are you alliterate? I don’t mean literate (that you can read) or illiterate (that you can’t read) but alliterate (that you can use alliteration: the repetition of similar sounds at the beginning of words). Are you prone to exercise alliteration when you write?

I am most fond of alliteration. I use it whenever possible; it is part of my writing voice. When done well, a cleverly alliterate phrase is memorable and impactful, which is precisely what we want our writing to accomplish.

I have, however, taken alliteration to extremes in some of my past writing. In recent years, I’ve pursued a more moderate approach to alliteration. No longer do I take literary pride in having penned an eight-word sentence, where seven of them began with S. That was too much.

Here are my tips for successful alliteration:

Use It: There are some in literary circles who dismiss alliteration as an ill-advised technique of novice writers. Personally, I think they’re just jealous they’re not alliterate. If there is any anti-alliterate bias, it is a mere trend. Use alliteration wisely to make our words soar.

Three Words Max: Seeing how many similarly sounding words we can string together may make for a good pastime, but it doesn’t make for good writing. Two-word alliteration is good, but stop at three. Four or more calls attention to the writer and distracts from the words written.

Don’t Sacrifice Meaning: I used to fall into the trap of exchanging clarity for the sake of alliteration. If a non-alliterate word communicates better than an alliterate alternative, always pick the one that speaks clearest.

Have Fun: Alliteration can be fun – when used in moderation. Enjoy it; relish it; perfect it. May you be an alliterate writer.

What are your thoughts on alliteration? Do you like it or avoid it?

Avoid Passive Writing

An explanation of what constitutes the passive voice is too technical to fully cover – not that I would try anyway – but here is an example:

Passive: Passive writing is something to be avoided.

Active: Avoid passive writing.

Notice that the active version is both clearer and more concise. This is key.

If you, like me, have trouble spotting passive phrases when we proof our work, the good news is Word does a reasonably good job of finding them.

My early writing was consistently passive. I never knew this, however, until I turned on Word’s grammar checker. It irritated me on most every sentence by proclaiming it as passive. After Word assaulted me for a couple of days, I resolved the problem by turning off the option to check for passive writing.

I resigned myself to accept that my writing style was passive, and I tried to shove the issue out of my mind. So I wrote for a couple of decades. When I became serious about improving my writing, I turned the option back on. Yikes!

At first, I corrected everything Word flagged as passive. Sometimes this was easy, and the edited version was better, both clearer and more concise, as in the above example. Other times, the reworked section became more verbose, clunky, or lost clarity. I felt the edits didn’t make my writing better but worse – because it was.

Now, I’ve settled into a middle ground. If I can make the sentence cleaner and clearer by removing the passive voice, I gladly do so. However, if removing the passive voice obscures meaning or increases the word count, I’m content to retain the passive construct. This was hard for me to accept: Sometimes we need to keep a passive phrase if we want to clearly communicate.

What are your thoughts on passive writing? Aside from my intentional example, Word finds no passive sentences in this post. Did it miss any?

How to Find Your Writing Voice

Last week we considered four aspects of a writer’s voice. Today, we’ll discuss how to find our voice. This isn’t mysterious or evasive; there’s no multistep process – and it isn’t hard to understand. Seriously. Here are four thoughts on our writing voice.

We Already Have a Voice: We need to recognize that if we write, we have a voice. It may not be a great voice or maybe not even a good one – perhaps it’s a voice no one wants to hear – but we do have a voice. In the spirit of René Descartes, We write, therefore we have a voice.

We Should Work to Make Our Voice Better: Just because we have a voice, doesn’t mean it’s automatically good. If we want our words read, we need to work on becoming better; that includes improving our voice. Our words need to touch readers in one way or another. A good voice does that. A not so good voice pushes readers away or calls attention to the author without regard for the reader.

We Should Work to Make Our Voice Consistent: Although our voice will vary for different genres and purposes, we need to strive for overall consistency. Our readers, like our friends, should know what to expect each time they read something from us. Just as people with multiple personality disorder are challenging to be around, so too for writers with an inconsistent voice.

We Fine-Tune Our Voice By Writing: The first three points are background. The key is to take the voice we already have and then work to make it better and consistent. We do this by writing – a lot: every day, month after month, year after year. There’s truth in needing to write a million words and put in 10,000 hours.

Before I hit those milestones, I had a decent enough voice, but I needed to log the time to make it better. And I will continue to strive to improve.

So join me in celebrating the voice we already have and then working to make it better – by writing a lot.

What do you think? Is putting in the time, the only way to find our voice?

The Four Parts of a Writer’s Voice

It’s a lot easier to understand what our voice is as a writer if we first look at its components. I see four elements that comprise a writer’s voice.

Personality: Each person has a personality, how we act, appear, and relate to others. Likewise, each writer has a personality, how we come across to our readers. Our writing personality might be distant or accessible, easy to read or guarded, open or closed, formal or informal, and so on.

Style: Closely related to personality is style. Our personal style is how we dress, groom, and carry ourselves. Style is about presentation. Writing style is about sentence length, word choice, paragraph structure, and grammar. Some styles are glitz with little substance, while other styles may appear plain but have depth. Some styles look nice and are packed with significance. Some writers follow all the writing conventions (“rules”) and others bend or break them at every opportunity – that is their style. Writing in the active voice or the passive voice is also part of our style.

Technique: How we write also affects our voice. Writers who outline before writing have a different voice than writers who wait for inspiration and then write not knowing where the words will take them. Some writers mull ideas over before typing, while others process as they work. Some wordsmiths follow a strict writing schedule and others write whenever they can fit it in – producing different results in the process. Some authors start with the end and then work to get there, while others don’t know the end until they arrive.

A final consideration of technique is editing. Editing can merely tighten up our work or editing can actually change our voice. My edited work is often less formal and wordy than the first draft. For others, editing does the opposite, placing structure around their free-flowing text.

Audience: A final consideration of voice is audience. As writers we don’t – or shouldn’t – have just one voice but instead offer variations as appropriate. Just as we act differently at work than at home, at church than at the game, with friends than with strangers, or at a fancy restaurant than at a barbeque, so too with writing. A children’s book needs a different voice than a research paper, a novel sounds different than a personal essay, and a romance doesn’t flow like speculative fiction. While our default voice may be beneath each one, we tweak it and control it for each situation, keeping some aspects in check, while emphasizing others. Finally, just as we may feel uneasy in some social situations, we may be uncomfortable writing for some audiences or genres. The key in both situations is not to let it show.

Our writing voice is made up of our writing personality, style, technique, and audience. Next week, I’ll share ideas of how to find our voice.

What is your writing voice like?

Kill Passive Writing

Kill Passive WritingThe sentence, “In my opinion, passive writing is bad,” exemplifies the passive voice.

The active voice says, “Kill passive writing.” My title proclaims this.

By nature, my words, both spoken and written, are passive. Many years ago, I became so irritated with Microsoft Word pointing out my passive sentences that I turned off the option. I concluded passivity was just my style. My writing voice was passive, so people needed to accept it and stop criticizing me for it.

In retrospect, I avoided the fact that my writing needed work.

Now I’m again checking for passive phrases and attacking them.

Sometimes passive writing is easy to fix. For the rest of the time, editing out passiveness is hard; often I end up with a sentence that is longer or less clear.

So, if fixing a passive sentence makes it stronger or easier to read, I gladly do it. For the rest, I’ll make an effort to fix them but am willing to retain some on occasion.