Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Whoops—sorry. Look what I have gone and done. The title of this blog is grammatically incorrect!!! But even though I don’t like rules about writing, or rules about anything else for that matter, I think I can give our readers a few helpful tips by inviting eight famous guest authors to lend me a hand.

Let’s start with a tongue-in-cheek excerpt from Great Rules for Writers by Pulitzer Prize winning columnist William Safire:

Do not put statements in the negative form. Don’t use no double negatives. Never use a big word when a diminutive one would suffice. Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!! Last but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.

Whoops—I’ve slipped up again. I already used too many exclamation marks in my first paragraph, and I’ve added two clichés to boot. Now I’ve done it again!!! No worries, though. I've invited another author to join in:

There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. (W. Somerset Maugham)

That did not help. Besides, this is a nonfiction blog. I should probably go back to the beginning and start with tips about writing good titles. My own valiant attempt may not have been grammatically correct, but did it at least attract some attention? To find out, I looked up a rule about writing blog titles from Top 100 blogger Daniel Scocco:

It must be search engine friendly. Like it or not most people find information through search engines.

Hmmm…check it out. Google says there are about 1,040,000,000 results for the word “writing.” That’s pretty stiff competition. OK, so how about this writing rule from the great Mark Twain?

The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.

I like this rule. But I think Mr. Twain is referring to fiction again, and this is still a nonfiction blog. Maybe these will do:

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. (George Orwell)

So far so good (another cliché on my part, though). Will any of these writing rules help?

Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visualization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book. (Margaret Atwood)

Never open a book with weather… The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. (Elmore Leonard)

Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don't follow it. (Geoff Dyer)

Oh. Maybe none of these rules will do the trick. (I know, I know—another cliché.) So here’s the one final rule of the day. It’s from a dead journalist who wrote about war, boxing, and food. I try to follow his rule religiously:

The only way to write is well, and how you do it is your own damn business. (A. J. Liebling)



Jim Murphy said...

Roz -- what a delightful way to start my day (sorry about that rhyme). Once in high school a classmate handed in an essay that clearly followed every "rule of writing" (a strong opening statement, followed by two paragraphs of supporting facts and information, brought to a finish with a brief closing that summed up everything said previously, all fancied up by a generous use of the thesaurus). He got a perfectly nice grade, but at the top the teacher wrote "bis repetita placent," which translates roughly as "a little originality, please." When quizzed about the remark the teacher said it's good to know the so-called rules, just don't be a slave to them. You have to have some fun writing if you expect me to still be awake when I get to the conclusion.

Vicki Cobb said...

Thanks, Roz, for such a fun post. Somehow, writing nonfiction for children traditionally brought many grammatically correct editors to the children's book business. They felt that children should not be exposed to a sentence fragment. So my playful lead sentence "Want to smell something rotten?" (Now I'd write it, "Wanna smell something rotten?") was changed to "Have you ever smelled something rotten?"
My summation: If you follow the rules, you'll never find your voice.

Myra Zarnowski said...

Roz--Thank you for the amusing, but also "spot on" post. I think the focus on learning to write should be on having something important to say and saying it well. Saying it well means saying it clearly but also interestingly. That's what I look for in nonfiction books for children.

Dorothy Patent said...

I love your post, Roz, and I'm likely to pirate some of your quotes for my next class for folks 50+ on finding their own voice through writing. I'll probably also use Vicki's cogent remark, "If you follow the rules, you'll never find your voice." That will really get them thinking!

Sue Macy said...

Great post, Roz. It makes me want to read your witches book. I do love your voice.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Love these responses everyone...thanks!!! (Exclamation marks be damned.)Let's just say I got by with a little help from my friends.