Singing the story
Sometimes you have to stop

The ugly duckling and the life-raft

In the comment trail of Demandingly ‘wrong’-headed, David Isaak describes a writers’ group reacting to his explaining why ‘don’t use adverbs’ is not a good - or even practicable - rule. Their reaction, he says, was along the lines of ‘It makes us really angry when someone tries to dilute a perfectly good and understandable rule by getting technical.’ That's the thing, isn’t it: people feel very insecure when something they thought they’d grasped, turns out not to be nearly so easy to hold on to. In the short term they feel themselves falling back into the almost overwhelming sea of possibilities that they first encountered when they started to think about writing.

But I do wonder if people are particularly upset, therefore defensive, therefore attacking, because of the way most of us learn how to write. First we write instinctively, with the joy of expressing ourselves. We write more, we want to be heard (or why are we writing?), we sense that something’s getting in the way of our expressing ourselves more fully, we tell ourselves we want to improve. So we ask teachers or how-to books or other writers what they think. And someone gently or roughly starts to point out how we could do it better, where it doesn't work, where it’s ‘wrong’. Generally speaking, that hurts, a little or a lot. We were proud of our writing, it had our heart stapled to the pages, and someone with experience or even authority has told us it’s lacking. Slowly we see what they mean, and try to put it into practice, with false starts and more hurts, and awkward ugly-duckling phases where our aims outstrip our technique. But if, instead of this unpredictable feedback spiral of learning, grubby brown feathers and all, we're taught neat ideas of what will help - rules of thumb, clever little tips, tick-box revising techniques - ‘success’ comes more quickly. We're doing things right, we're good at it, everyone approves.

So to be told that what healed you, what made you a ‘better’ writer, what perhaps even won you prizes and certainly approval, is fundamentally flawed, is pretty hard to take. If you’ve got as far as making something of a writing life - teaching, reviewing, or any milieu where your opinion carries some weight - it's even more threatening. To have it explained in unarguable detail why the way you've judged your own and others' work for so long is inadequate is almost impossible to handle.

So no wonder people lash out, particularly if they hit the water just as a swan is passing. They've been cast adrift from the life-raft of 'the rules', but because they've always had it, they never even learnt to swim.


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I'm sure insecurity does drive it, and it could well be because these rules are like masts to cling to in a listing sea. Or, simply, that once folk have invested large amounts of time and cash in creative writing courses, 'the rules' become the badge that separates them from the rest of the struggling proles...I have heard (actually, I was told this directly: I was simply trying to protect my ego just a teensy bit), 'well, if you had taken X's paper, you'd know that there's a very good reason for showing not telling.' For a second I got caught up in the rush of possibilities that this was some sort of arcane society. And then I thought, 'Nah.'

Emma Darwin

Claire, what a great story! And you're right, 'Nah!' is the answer. But the self-appointed members of that society can be very convincing.

" 'the rules' become the badge that separates them from the rest of the struggling proles..."

I think this is probably very true, and not just of people who've spent cash. Any of us are likely to be offended to be taken as less serious and experienced about writing than we are, and if you define knowing 'the rules' as a badge of seriousness, heaven help the person who says they're not. (I certainly don't regard 'the rules' as such a badge, but we all have our egos to look after, as you say. I remember saying at one of many parties that I was a writer who just happened not to have been published yet. Someone laughed and said 'We won't introduce you to X, then', who, it turned out, worked for an indie publisher - though on the business side, not as an editor. I was ashamed to realise that I spent much of the next hour making it Very Clear that I had a Well Known agent who was waiting for me to finish my next novel so he could send it out.)


To me the arbiters of these rules are a bit like the government nannies, who tell you that you must do things because they know better than you do what's good for you. Don't smoke. Don't drink too much. Don't eat too much.

The inference being that the individual is too much of an imbecile to work out for themselves that smoking or drinking and eating too much might be bad for you. And we're just not grown up enough to make an informed decision.

So, the writing rules are put there because those of us who are newer to writing need saving from ourselves, in case we, God forbid, make mistakes that prevent us getting published.

The truth is that a few rejections will soon give a new writer the idea that they might be doing something wrong, and they'll either give up writing or look at what they're doing and try harder. People can't learn from other peoples' mistakes. They have to learn from their own. So telling them 'Don't' will have no effect on their learning curve at all, whereas having nearly every story or novel they send out sent back with a 'thanks but no thanks' will soon wake them up the fact that something is amiss.

The 'rules', to me, are simply nannyism brought into the writing world.

Strange though, but I've never seen an adverb that killed anyone :-)


Great post, Emma and what a great point, Claire.



I do enjoy this blog, but have not been compelled to speak up before now. But it strikes me there does seem to be a war on with this rules v's no rules malarky, and writers risk throwing the baby out with the bath water if they fall heavily on either side. One must walk the middle line, know they are there and apply them if it seems right - it is useful shorthand when asked to read friends' work and, for example, they've sprinkled adverbs around like confetti. But if you find yourself in a situation where they are being applied with the strictness of a sadistic piano teacher, then that is the time to walk away.

Emma Darwin

Thanks, Nik!

Poppy, I do agree that there can be a useful shorthand for certain technical issues which crop up repeatedly, to be used among writers who all agree that that's all it is: shorthand for much larger issues of style and technique. What bothers me is the way that this shorthand for certain tools we might choose to use, seems to be elided into 'rules' without anyone noticing. As soon as that term's being used it reduces these subtle issues to 'keep' or 'break', and judging work begins to be about determining which it does. We DO need ways to discuss about what works and what doesn't and what to do about it, but talking about 'rules' seems to me to make that discussion less fruitful, less interesting, and less likely to help people to write better, because by definition rules can't take enough account of context, and in writing context is all.


True, the context - the prose - is important, but also the context in which the rules are applied. Just as you would tell a young child not to run across the road - one of the first BIG RULES it learns in it's life. But there comes a time when the child must do just that. Standing at the side of the road with the child holding your hand and sending several minutes explaining about the road and the cars that drive down it and how sometimes it's safe to cross and sometimes it isn't depending on how fast the car is going, is not going to teach him NOT TO RUN ACROSS THE ROAD at that age.
Likewise, if one is attending a creative writing course in the form of an evening class at the local school, where 95% of the prose style is just dire, then it helps to level the playing field, and to do that tutors often start by using 'the rules' as a form of shorthand on the, often correct, assumption that most of the class don't know their adjectives fom their adverbs (not sure I do, to be honest). Obviously it's different in University, and, one would hope, on more advanced writing courses. At that point the 'parent' can take the time to explain about 'roads' and 'cars'.
Most writers, however, do not progress much beyond the evening classes, and so do not take that extra step beyond the application of the rules, and knowing when they can be safely ignored.


To take the analogy to it's bitter end, I know that some are of the strong opinion that writers should be allowed to run across the proverbial road time and again in the hope that they will learn by that means. That only works for those children with the inate ability to dodge the speeding cars - they are the rare few who can fly.

Emma Darwin

I have to say, Poppy, that I don't think your analogy holds, because a child can learn to run elsewhere, whereas the rules as promulgated to (or at least heard by) newbie writers are all about 'never'. The analogy only fits if you think of it in terms of never letting the child run anywhere in case it falls over. Whereas, although as a parent you do try to stop them falling down flights of concrete steps because of the risk of permanent injury, you have to let go of their hand the rest of the time - you have to be prepared to let them collect minor injuries - otherwise how will they find their own balance and physical confidence, or discover that grass is safer than concrete?


It might be stating the obvious but writers, generally, aren't children. Most come to their writing careers with some experience of storytelling techniques, through reading, watching television, seeing plays etc. So whilst we'd all do everything we could to protect our children from getting run over, writers need no such protection from the 'dangers' in literature. We manage to survive our mistakes unscathed.

Mind you, I did get a nasty paper cut once whilst loading my printer, and no one warned me about that.


Lol, that is the trouble with using analogies, one should first define the meaning of 'the road' and 'crossing it' before someone re-interprets it. Yes, 'never', is a strong word.
'Never run across the road' should at some point be suffixed with, 'look both ways first and make sure it is safe': If you are going to stick an adjective in there, make sure it's the right one and doesn't ruin the flow of words, like a body in the road.
One often finds a certain amount of road-kill following group critiques in creative writing courses - often amongst those who have done their own thing and then don't understand why their peers appear to be tearing their work to shreds. (Or, in your analogy, they hit the concrete rather hard and fail to bounce.)
One hopes that armed with a knowledge (cushion or parachute) of 'the rules' they are more able to stand their ground and argue their case for ignoring them.
But I fear I have strayed from the topic of 'rules' (definition: the word, of) and into the strengths & weaknesses of creative writing courses (application of), so my apologies. It was lovely to have this discussion, Emma, and all the best with the writing.

Emma Darwin

That's it, isn't it: the more you try to boil a complex situation like road-crossing or writing to the shortest possible phrase, the less appropriate and more prescriptive it becomes. (When my sister was cornered by a pitbull terrier and the only escape was to get into the car of the total stranger who offered sanctuary, 'never get into a strange car' was actually the better option...)

Thanks for your contribution, Poppy, and thanks for the good wishes.


Ah, but Sally Q, one should never believe one is no longer a child, because at that point one is incapable of learning as a child - adults, in comparison, have such closed minds.

Or, some such twaddle, but hopefully you get the point.

Emma Darwin

Learning as a child includes running in the road: holding its hand is surely the equivalent of closing its mind.

David I

"Strange though, but I've never seen an adverb that killed anyone..."

True. But I've been whacked by a few in dialogue tags that made me take to my bed like a Victorian maiden with the vapors (he asseverated exasperatingly).

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