I once read an article about the “Ten Rules of Writing Fiction” and one of them was to never begin the story with the weather. What if the very thing you needed to write about was central to the story you are about to tell? I meant, if your character is stuck on a road in a remote part of the Yukon, in the dead of winter, weather will be central to the plot. And, a great opening would be: “It was one of those white-outs in Yukon Territory where the blizzard fought for dominance over the impending wind and freezing rain.” Would you not get a visible image of that scene – even if you lived in Bali?
Dorothy Parker once famously quipped, “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
Rarely is a Parker quip a compliment, but, speaking of the “Style” Bible, it’s been over one hundred years after the birth of E.B. White and good number of years after I first encountered his classic style guide (originally written by William Strunk Jr. in 1918 – but much expanded by White), it may be time to admit that it’s not all it is cracked up to be.
"Don’t use active voice, paragraphs should be more than one sentence, place yourself in the background, avoid foreign languages; stay clear of accents"... Nabokov’s novels are full of foreign languages, and if Nabokov did it, it can’t be that wrong.
Then, there is Rule Sixteen which implores the writer to “prefer the specific to the general, the definite to the vague, the concrete to the abstract.” The book presents two examples, the first, in each, being “wrong:”
A period of unfavorable weather set in.
It rained every day for a week.
He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward.
He grinned as he pocketed the coin.
Excuse me, but I prefer “a period of unfavorable weather set in,” if only because it’s less usual and banal.
Recently, the New York Times attempted to explain Jane Austen’s enduring popularity by unpacking her word choices – what they discovered was that Austen had a propensity for words like: quite, really and very – the sort that writers are urged to avoid if they want muscular prose. So, writers are to avoid the very language that has made Jane one of the most beloved writers of all time?
Professional writers probably won’t be tied to any rule book, but, students will need to be taught that clarity is king – still, rules learned early on can be tough to shake, and most of us learned, at least a little, from Strunk & White. I understand that writing teachers know that most people need to master the rules before they can break them. But, as a reader, I prefer the offbeat to the standard – in word choice, in subject matter and in structure.
I think my greatest rule is that a piece of writing should follow a path – if readers don’t have a path to follow, they will get lost. Truth is paradox – in the greatest story ever told, the universe was created “as something out of nothing” – the first and most basic creation metaphor. Opposing ideas form the tension of its very premise. My point, there is no writing guide that can teach you style with any skill – it is in choosing which rules to learn and which to break – to what end – that you can begin to construct your own.