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5 Common Writing Rules You Might Want to Ignore by Janalyn Voigt | Live Write Breathe

5 Common Writing Rules to Ignore

You don’t know what you don’t know, but a good editor will teach you. That’s why I’m the first to recommend letting one save you from yourself. The topic of edits is much on my mind lately. One of the challenges of having two publishers is back-to-back edits on multiple book projects. That’s my situation since January. I’m probably feeling a little rebellious after all that toeing the line, hence this article.

It’s more than that, though. Because I read classic novels and vintage mysteries while growing up, I was exposed from an early age to the glorious freedom earlier authors enjoyed in their writing. An antiquated version of the thought police could have existed, I suppose, but these writers seemed unencumbered by many of the constraints on authors in modern times.

In Jamaica Inn, for example, Daphne Du Maurier goes on for pages while describing Bodmin Moor. Send a marathon descriptive passage to an editor today and the red pen is guaranteed to come out. I shudder to think what would happen to Daphne’s eloquent passages if she lived in modern times.

Wander through the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R.Tolkien and you’ll notice an abundance of what today’s editors would dub ‘overuse’ of detail. And yet, Tolkien’s dense story world has captivated readers for decades.

There’s something in human nature that lends itself to piling on legalities. I thought it would be fun, possibly cathartic, to talk about writing rules we might want to give short shrift, at least once in a while.

5 Common Writing Rules to Ignore

1. Write only with nouns and verbs.

This writing rule stems from the concept that adverbs and adjectives signal weak verbs and nouns. While it’s true that strengthening nouns and verbs can remove the need for helper words, sometimes that strategy falls on its face. Our language has its limitations. I first noticed this when I wanted to name the wingabeasts (winged horses) in my Tales of Faeraven epic fantasy series after different types of wind. In English, you need two words (an adjective and a noun) to describe the whistling wind, howling wind, rushing wind, etc.. I didn’t want my winged horses having two names, though. I lucked out, having based the language of the wingabeast owners on Old German, a language that had a different word for each type of wind.

To describe the rushing wind in a manuscript, you could use the simplest construction and say that the wind rushed. But why limit yourself? I’ve written two sentences, below, to illustrate.

  1. The grasses sighed in the rushing wind.
  2. The wind rushed through the grasses.

Which version sounds more lyrical? I’m guessing the first stands out. Start with a strong noun and verb, and adding a vivid adjective or adverb can enrich a description.

Let’s also ask which sentence reads faster? The second, right? It’s simpler, a fact that makes it easier to read. The first sentence might benefit a slower scene where you want to paint a beautiful picture. The second would work best in places where you need to move the story along at a faster clip.

One caveat: writers often overuse helper words. Don’t pepper your manuscript with them or you’ll enter the perilous purple prose zone.

2. Avoid ‘-ing’ words like the plague.

I once had an editor hellbent on eradicating each and every ‘-ing’ word in my manuscript. The result came out wooden. Fortunately, I was able to fix my manuscript before it ever saw print. As a literary judge, I’ve read many books from established publishers with sentences like this one: “He talked with you, or I’d have said hello.” To be natural, the sentence should read: “He was talking with you, or I’d have said hello.” Sacrificing grammar to avoid ‘-ing words’ strikes me as a little paranoid. A content editor I once worked with recast all my sentences like the one just described. Much to my amusement and relief, my copy editor restored the original verb forms.

3. Never split an infinitive.

An infinitive is a verb with the word ‘to’ in front of it. ‘To go’ is an infinitive. When you split an infinitive, you put another word, most often an adverb, between the two parts of the infinitive. ‘To boldly go” is an example of this that most Star Trek fans will recognize.

The advice to avoid splitting infinitives dates most notably from 1864, when Henry Alford, Dean of Canterbury, included it in a book entitled The Queen’s English. Educated circles used to view the practice of splitting infinitives with abhorrence for no reason other than personal preference or (dare I say) word snobbery.

The stigma against splitting infinitives has passed through time to us today. Because some people believe splitting infinitives is wrong, avoiding this practice might be a good idea, but within reason. Every once in a while you might want to daringly split an infinitive.

You rebel, you.

4. Eradicate ‘was’ from your manuscript.

You’ve probably heard that ‘was’ indicates passive voice. While that can be true, it isn’t always.  To clarify this, let’s review active and passive voice.

In an active voice sentence, the subject performs an action on an object.

Example of active voice: I like chocolate. :o) 

With passive voice, the object moves front and center, usurping the subject.

Example of passive voice: Chocolate is liked by me. 

Chocolate is the focus of the sentence but doesn’t perform an action. A linking verb now connects the subject with the rest of the sentence. “True” linking verbs have no other function than to express state of being. They are forms of ‘to be’: am, is, are, was, were, be, been, and being. A manuscript laden with linking verbs makes for some heavy reading, let me tell you. Hunting down passive voice isn’t as easy as spotting forms of ‘to be,’ unfortunately. When other verbs describe a state of being rather than an action, they can also serve as linking verbs. But that’s another subject.

To muddy the waters further, ‘was’ doesn’t always indicate passive voice. (Remember that passive voice occurs when the verb acts on the subject instead of the object.)

Example 1: He was home. 

This statement has the subject and object in the right places. Too many sentences like this can turn a manuscript into bedtime reading material, but every so often a simple sentence comes in handy .

Example 2: She was running. 

In this sentence, ‘was’ is an intransitive verb, a fancy term for a verb not followed by an object. Intransitive verbs are never passive voice because there’s no object to swap positions with the noun. Again, this isn’t the most riveting way of saying something, but sometimes you need to state a fact and move on.

Example 3: She was running home. 

If you add an object to the previous example while keeping the subject and object in order, it still wouldn’t become passive voice. In this example, ‘was’ is part of a past progressive verb, which shows continuous action in the past. This is the much-maligned verb form that my content editor took out of my manuscript and my copy editor put back in. (See writing rule #2.)

Passive voice introduces unneeded words and puts the reader through mental gymnastics. Fixing a passive voice sentence is as simple as switching the positions of the subject and object. ‘Was,’ is a verb like any other. Use it properly, in proportion within the manuscript, and without fear.

5. Show, don’t tell.

Employing the five senses in fiction writing makes sense most of the time. Except when it doesn’t. One of the complaints agents have is that so many submissions start with the protagonist waking. A foot emerges from the bed. The running shower steams up the bathroom. And on and on. The real opening happens later in the day, but the reader who perseveres must first go through death by minutia. Starting a story with something interesting going on solves this. In places within your manuscript where time passes but little happens, it’s best to summarize the shift in as few sentences as possible.

Final Thoughts From Janalyn

Okay, I’ll say it. There’s a point where you might have to stand your ground. Editors make mistakes. They have opinions. Pet peeves blind them. They lose their neutrality about your book and try to rewrite it to their own vision. Buying into the rote way of doing things can make them resist change. None of this is good for your creativity or your manuscript. Having said that, I should point out that a healthy tension always exists between more practical considerations (read: sales potential) and artistic expression.

It’s only fair that a publisher paying to produce your book should have a say in recouping their investment. That’s why you’ll see less experimentation in traditional publishing than in Indie publishing.

Indie authors have the privilege of choosing which edits to accept. That’s good and bad. I consider working with traditional publishers a privilege. It is precisely because I don’t have the final say on edits for my traditional titles that I’ve grown as an author.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but simply what works best for you.

Have you broken any of the writing rules I mentioned? Do you know of others? Comment and let me know.

5 Common Writing Rules to Ignore via @JanalynVoigt | Live Write Breathe

Written by Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt

© Janalyn Voigt
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I’m Janalyn Voigt, an author, speaker, and former social media mentor. DawnSinger and Wayfarer, the first two books in my epic fantasy series, Tales of Faeraven, released with Pelican Book Group and will be followed by at least two more installments. I’m also working on a romantic suspense novel set in an Irish castle, but then historical fiction has a grip on me too. Being unabashedly multi-genre makes me into what some might term a reluctant rebel, but I prefer to think of myself as a storyteller.

2 thoughts on “5 Common Writing Rules to Ignore”

  1. Thanks for commenting, K J. I agree that some writing styles and genres tolerate the use of ‘was’ more than others. Good point. I wouldn’t characterize my criticism of the ‘eradicate-was’ mindset as complaining, however.

    I totally agree with your take on description and don’t mean to communicate gratuitous overuse. Here’s a post I wrote teaching from this perspective:

  2. Loved this article. I was hit with many of the same edits with my first published book. However, I do disagree to a certain extent with your complaints. I was also told to eradicate ‘was’ from my writing…wherever I could. My editor was ultimately correct in having me do that. My writing became crisper and more immediate. However, I think it depends on writing style and genre. My book was a paranormal suspense. Long-winded sentences and ‘was -ing’ construction slowed the pace.

    I say write the way you want to write, but follow ‘the rules’ where possible. Not only does it come across as more professional, it does hone your writing.

    If I look back at my earlier attempts at publication before a good editor got a hold of me, I can see the weak spots and overly complex language. You want readers to be engaged in your story, not led down a path of description just for description’s sake. (I love Daphne DuMaurier, by the way, but stumbled through some of her weightier stuff)

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