Friday, February 20, 2009

The Rules of Writing (Part V)

Twain simply listed his last seven rules and I think I will also. An author should:

  • 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.

These rules are closely related. We can summarize them by saying pay attention to details. We know that Twain advised killing most adjectives and adverbs. That is part of what he mean by Eschew surplusage, though he meant more than that. We have many words and phrases that we use in our spoke language that we don’t really need in conveying our message with written language. These words and phrases find their way into our work.

Some of the rules we don’t see in Twain’s list are things like maintain a consistent point of view, avoid speaker attributes and avoid “be” verbs. Maybe these are the three that Twain didn’t include in his nineteen rules, but I wouldn’t read too much into that. There are plenty of rules out there and how important they are is highly subjective. I don’t care how well you apply rules, someone is going to say you didn’t apply them well enough. Instead of holding up the rules and saying, “Look, I applied all the rules,” go ahead and apply the rules and see if it improves your work. If it does, great. If it doesn’t, fix it. Then forget everything you know about the rules, hand your work to someone and say, “I believe this is worth your consideration.”