Revisiting the Issue of Style (Writer’s Bane #167)

I want to rant about style. Yes,  I’ve done it before.  I’ll probably do it again. Count your blessings. I could be bitching about word counts. (No worries. I swore I would take a break from that one for a few months at least.)

My gripe today: the “acceptable usage” problem in genre writing. I make the distinction between literary and genre/commercial because the pressures are so very different. No one tells the James Joyces of the world  to stick to pithy adjectives and active verbs. No one tells the next William Faulkner to avoid long clauses  and complex paragraphs. Well, not no one. Editors issue rejections until one sees the brilliance in the author’s dense, convoluted, messy originality and publishes the work to critical acclaim. Some contrarian reviewers might remain unmoved, but most will rhapsodize.

It’s different in the ever-exploding genre world. The expectations for commercial writing to adhere to standard guidelines are much, much higher, and the pressure to conform is intense. The words GOOD and BAD are used without hesitation. Judgment is wielded like Death’s undiscriminating scythe everywhere a writer turns. Advice is dispensed with a generous hand. References and citations are tossed out like competing birds in a cockfight.

The overall message is: play by the rules, or you will never be taken seriously as a professional.  Follow the rules, or readers will not follow you. Think back to the last vividly-memorable first-book you read. Was the author’s second one as good? Did it change pacing, wording, style? I could fill a bookcase with books by authors whose subsequent works stopped being original and refreshing and began to conform to the norms.

Professional editors aren’t the only ones demanding that Standards Be upheld, nor experienced reviewers. Every avid reader feels their opinion is educated, many readers are also indie writers, and many indie writers wear an editor’s hat on occasion. The list of Do’s and Don’t keeps getting longer, and the community filters are too clogged to wash the dross away from the nuggets of true wisdom.

Here’s just a small sample of the standards that get waved around as fervently as any fan waves her flag at a World Cup Game.

  • Use action words. Vary sentence length, but not too much. Keep it short & pithy at all costs.
  • Keep the timeframe short too. Sense of urgency is all. Skip any scene that does not advance the plot with every word.
  • Show, don’t tell. But don’t show everything in detail.
  • Tag dialogue sparingly. Use said, rather than its synonyms. Avoid even using said, if you can.
  • Be sparing with adjectives. Avoid adverbs.
  • Identify all cliche terms and over-used phrases; excise them from your work. Beware of lazy metaphors and threadbare similes.

When did adverbs become evil? When did using “said” become a sign of bad writing, and its absence a a sign of the same flaw? When did writers become so certain that The Rules of Writing are chiseled in stylistic stone?  I’ll tell you when: it began when author-published works began to gain market share.

Advice is a big business, and preying on insecurity and inexperience is a business tactic as old as bargaining. Anyone who lays down the Immutable Truth or  paves The Guaranteed Path To Success is sure to generate site hits and gain plenty of attention. And ad revenue.

My favorite advice article headline will always be “10 Steps to Greater Originality.” Alas, that the site long ago withered into oblivion. (1994? 95?)  It still makes me giggle. Steps. To originality. As in, “Follow this exact plan, the same one that everyone else will be using, and you will be original.” If only writing catchy, stylish prose were that easy. If only. There is a magic to this art of writing, but that isn’t it.

The magic does not live in the rules. I’m tired of advice that scorns common phrases without exception. I’m sick of judges who sneer at grammar and poo-poo descriptions that have been around since the written word met the printing press.

Overused words, trite phrases, cliches, descriptive shortcuts…they have a place. They have a purpose. Stop avoiding them merely because they’re popular and some advice book says they’re bad. That which is sneer-worthy today may be the subject of graduate theses in a score of years. Look at romance novels. Look at how long it’s taken the literary world to take them seriously, in large part due to all the style conventions and compromises that were considered acceptable there, but not elsewhere.  

Storytellers are readers before they become writers. When new writers start to pour out their stories, they write what they read.  This is the birth of style. A surprising number of writers start out writing erotica. There are conventions unique to that community, ones that are rarely considered acceptable elsewhere. The first time I saw an erotica-descriptive trick used in a genre fiction novel I did a spit-take. I know where that author first gave words to the worlds of his imagination. 

That’s simply one case. There are more. Many storytelling forms have no problem with ritual, form, and phrasing. “Once upon a time,” anyone? The ideas that come up again and again are the ones that resonate with creator and consumer alike.

Yes, I know, there may be a good reason that an author should usually avoid the superfluous use of “suddenly.” (For example.) Or the overuse of usually, for that matter. I agree, but with caveats. There should be a reason to avoid breaking rules that goes deeper than “It’s a Bad Thing because reasons.”  It might not be bad in context.

Context. That’s the sticking point. Who decides the context? A reader? An editor? Nope.  Writing is all about getting the right words in the right place, and the only person who judge what that means is the creator. In the final analysis, the writer’s judgment is the only one that matters. 

Trust the advice of experts, but only so far, and no further. Be aware of the rules, but be ready to break them with merry abandon if you ever hope to create something unique and interesting.  It’s a tough to master, this trick of deciding when to comply and when to rebel, but it can be done. It takes many trials and many, many errors, but it’s the difference between trying to write, and writing. 

You only have to do this one thing, to be original and find your own style. 

2 thoughts on “Revisiting the Issue of Style (Writer’s Bane #167)

  1. Mama Up! says:

    At some point I stopped liking anything other than plain old “said” but frankly it has not lessened my joy in reading good stuff even if people are expounding and explaining and sighing their words out. Style standards are based on what's trendy now so I try not to take them too seriously.

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  2. K.M. Herkes says:

    Hear, hear! I dislike saidisms too, and I avoid them in my own writing. I am a true believer in the adage, “Learn the rules before you break the rules,” in fact but–BUT! Not all rules are created equal. Adherence to the essentials of grammar is a solid foundation, and even that isn't as clear-cut as it's often presented.
    A single influential editor's preference on dialogue becomes A Rule. Popular trends in plot development become Rules. None of these are rules in the same way that “end a sentence with punctuation” is, but you'd think they carried exactly the same weight, judging by writing advice blogs. Worse, the list of do's and don'ts have been proliferating like field mice in a barrel of birdseed.
    It frets at me, it does. (Obviously) Lots of things aggravate me. I can rant just as loudly about people who sit on the “True Art Needs No Rules” high horse and pretend it doesn't reek of dung. Hm. I think I already did, in a different post.

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