Friday, February 26, 2010

Rules for Writing

The Guardian asked a bunch of writers for their "ten rules of writing" and got many interesting responses. Several repeat what I think is the most basic instruction for anyone who wants to write well: "read your work aloud to yourself." Only by developing an ear for the rhythm of prose can anyone learn to write.

Some others I particularly like:

Elmore Leonard:
3 Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.
Margaret Atwood:
8 You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You've been backstage. You've seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
Hilary Mantel:
3 Write a book you'd like to read.
Joyce Carol Oates:
6 Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: "A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."
Colm Toibin:
2 Get on with it.

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