W. Somerset Maugham—
There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.
The first rule for writers is the No Rule. As Joseph Conrad put it—”No secret of eternal life for our books can be found amongst the formulas of art, any more than for our bodies in a prescribed combination of drugs.”
Conrad based his assertion on the evolution of culture. “….because the formulas of art are dependent on things variable, unstable and untrustworthy; on human sympathies, on prejudices, on likes and dislikes, on the sense of virtue and the sense of propriety, on beliefs and theories that, indestructible in themselves, always change their form—often in the lifetime of one fleeting generation.”
How right he was, and without an inkling of the innovations that would transform the next generations—that people of every social class would see the world, that television would reside on the family altar, that the Internet would place media beyond imagination at our fingertips. Gone, for one, is an appetite for Michener’s 900-page, 300-character epics with stalwart exposition describing the birth of an ice age or the indigenous plants of the South Pacific. Literature has changed. The publishing industry has changed. Writing, by necessity, has changed.
Make no mistake, though, Conrad discussed at length the essence of fine writing. He knew how “to arrest, for the space of a breath, the hands busy about the work of the earth, and compel men entranced by the sight of distant goals to glance for a moment at the surrounding vision of form and color, of sunshine and shadows; to make them pause for a look, for a sigh, for a smile.
…such is the aim [of the writer],” he wrote, “difficult and evanescent, and reserved only for a few to achieve.” We owe Conrad, and others like him, for touting the techniques fundamental to this craft. For bequeathing us with rules. For passing down their wisdom.
“All art appeals primarily to the senses,” Conrad said, “and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses.”
You can call it a rule. You can call it a technique, a guideline, a tool, advise, an aphorisms… You can adopt it without exception. You can dismiss it entirely. There are no rules, and there are rules. Rather than paradoxical, this seeming contradiction lies within the term rules, as well as the mercurial nature of art and its individual practice. As those pursuing creative expression, we needn’t follow in our predecessors’ footsteps. Like children coming of age, we may pick from what they have to offer and choose what we wish to own.
The writer shall—
- Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
- Use the right word, not its second cousin.
- Eschew surplusage.
- Not omit necessary details.
- Avoid slovenliness of form.
- Use good grammar.
- Employ a simple, straightforward style.
George Orwell’s Five Rules
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
Kurt Vonnegut: Eight Rules for Fiction Writing
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
But Vonnegut actually had nine rules. The first, he said, “Do not use semicolons.” It might sound trivial, but I agree. Semicolons belong in collegiate environments.
- Use short sentences.
- Use short first paragraphs.
- Use vigorous English.
- Be positive, not negative.
- Write it straight and clear.