The rules you should always abide (but really you don't need to)

If there’s something that will always be true is the freedom that writing gives to people who approach this world. There’s something liberatory about describing, telling, narrating, creating something that either we’re too scared to live ourselves or we cannot physically live (not that easy to roam in a dystopic plain or a fantasy land filled with half-men or whatever is the creature of the case). Though there is one problem that always shows up and there are no shortcuts to solve this: you must write something worth reading for people. Unless you’re writing for the pleasure of writing itself and you’ll burn every work you do, it’s imperative what you write is good.

Nothing particularly groundbreaking here. We all know this, don’t we?

Well, yes, and no.

Generic rules, marketing and some (more or less) myths have been establishing what’s worth reading and what’s not. And if that is something we could not solve alone and just by ourselves, it is something we must take into consideration when we write and, to a certain extent, accept. Writers cannot write whatever they please and expect to be an overnight best-seller while going against rules, grammar, format, genres, and whatnot. We must abide.

Still, some of them are not really likeable and a bit restricting. You should follow them, but sometimes, when you follow those rules it really itches. There’s just something that's fastidiously bothering and annoying. So, since we’re all fans of intellectual honesty, aBloodyWriter will list those rules you should respect (but really you don’t need to).

Use of the active form

This is (surely) one of the rules they said you must follow to be a good writer. In an active sentence, the subject carries out the action of the verb, giving momentum and greater clarity to the sentence; thus increasing the readability and introducing more information to the reader about the author of said action. In a passive sentence, the subject undergoes the action and in the English language that isn’t well-received because it deprives the reader of some possible information; so English relegates the passive form to a well-contained number of situations

It is not a prohibition (the passive does exist and it is normally used!), but the active form is linear, direct, precise. On the other hand, passive sentences can give a greater impact, as we perceive passive voice as a carrier of something that is scientific or important. We’re not used to listening to passive sentences in the spoken language but we’re used to that by reading school books where plenty of time this structure is present. So our minds give to this voice a higher rank which we can’t perceive as we do with the active voice. E.g. Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility “[He] pressed them so cordially to dine at Barton Park every day till they were better settled at home that, though his entreaties were carried to a point of perseverance beyond civility, they could not give offense.”

The active voice of the example could have been “Although he carried his entreaties to a point of perseverance beyond civility, they could not give offense.” However, Austen used the passive voice to show that while Mr Middleton pushed his entreaties too far, everyone forgave him for his pushiness because he meant well. The passive voice allows Austen to poke fun at the character in a way that lets readers in on the joke. Active wouldn’t have conveyed her meaning in the same way, giving less importance to the context and more on the actual action, which in this case wasn’t as important.

Avoid complex words

Here, the thesaurus and antonyms can help you improve your online writing. Among the constellation of rules for writing well, there’s this: choose simple words to read and pronounce. You must be like a tightrope walker: you have to be specific, but at the same time, avoid words that sink into bureaucrat-ish and force the reader to read with an open vocabulary. Although being a simple rule anyone could agree upon, aBW feels it’s right to take the counterpart in defence of the hard, difficult words. Like before, big words convey a feeling of importance to our mind, so we should use complex words whenever we need to make our readers feel something under different light and with different eyes. One may dare say one cannot be too simplistic in every sentence of one’s book.

e.g. “He took the blow and tried to kiss her, but she refused him. He felt surprised but he wasn’t embarrassed” This could become “He took the blow and tried to kiss her, but she refused him. He felt astonished but unabashed”

Use words, not definitions

Sometimes it is better to use a specific term and not the words needed to explain the concept. This rule almost always applies, as long as you don't fall into the bureaucrat-ish. English is a rich, constantly evolving language, and there are also specific words to indicate feelings, moods: you are not very angry, you are furious. You are not very happy: you are radiant. However, sometimes this rule may not apply nor be so necessary. If while you’re writing you want to use a concept instead of a word: you should. One is allowed to give a “statement of the exact meaning of a word” instead of just giving a simple “definition”. You can well say that one of your characters is clearly emanating great joy instead of being radiant

Prefer the affirmative form

The sentences in the affirmative form are clear, simple. Negatives can be problematic when accompanied by a smoky syntax. Especially, when they come up with double negation. For example: “I didn't say not to come.” or “It's not that I don't want to be present. I’m otherwise willing on being present”. Difficult to read. It’s easier to receive the affirmative form. Yet, sometimes negatives and double negatives can be interesting and give a different perspective. Instead of being direct, the sentence has a particular twist that must be interpreted giving, to some extent, a funnier piece to read.

Follow Umberto Eco's advice

Do you know the 40 rules of writing listed by Umberto Eco in the “Bustina di Minerva”? Probably not, since it seems to be an only Italian book; however, you could know Eco for his works in Linguistics and as a writer. Within the "La Bustina di Minerva" there are principles for finding balance in the texts. Some favourites of aBW are:

  • Never generalise.

  • Is there really a need for rhetorical questions?

  • Avoid clichés: it's heated soup.

  • You don't have to be verbose, but neither do you have to say less than what.

Umberto Eco (Perish the thought!) does not limit himself to defining the points: he rattles them off with irony and nimbleness. The rules Eco writes about are really important, and the few presented here remain a staple of good writing. We, as writers should follow them in most cases, but sometimes we should feel free to discard them. As the same Eco wrote about them with irony showing there’s not any need to abide them blindly.

Plus, there are a few other rules Orwell gave us to follow:

A scrupulous writer will ask himself at least four questions in every sentence that one writes:

  1. What am I trying to say?

  2. What words will express it?

  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?

  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And one will pose two more, most probably:

  1. Could I put it more shortly?

  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figures of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Guess one should strictly abide and religiously respect the sixth rule.

And as always, remember: besides all the important rules one should follow, there's only one thing that truly matters. You're aBloodyWriter Write Stories. Create Lives.


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