Swimming with the Editing Current

This was a post I wrote years ago, after a particularly harrowing session of editing.

If you want to write, there are rules you have to follow. Apparently. What I want to know is, who set these rules? And what will happen to me if I disobey them? I would really like to disobey them, on principle.

First of all, she demanded, who was it who said you should never use any verb but ‘said’ when attributing dialogue? It’s not as if the English language lacks alternatives, she complained. In fact, she confided, it probably has more words for ‘said’ than Eskimos have for snow (allegedly). To be honest, she opined, she finds it rather depressing. A whole chunk of the English language consigned to the bin, she whined, because someone has decided it’s not allowed. Stupid, she snarled.

Secondly, it’s fervently demanded that most adverbs should not be excessively used. In fact, according, tritely, to some, any adverbs should never freely be used. Anyone who tentatively tries to insert adverbs thoughtfully or meaningfully will be thoroughly hanged, drawn and precisely quartered. Oh well, there goes another massive chunk of the English language. What’s wrong with adverbs? she asked, plaintively.

And of course (glossing over the rule that says a sentence should never start with And), there’s the rule that the writer should never switch the dread POV. Point of View for those who don’t obsess about it. If we are following the thoughts and feelings of one character, we shouldn’t be allowed a sneak glimpse into the thoughts and intentions of another.

Well, okay, I can see that if a piece is written in the first person, it might be a bit much for the narrator to claim to know what someone else is thinking or intending – although even then, we can all make pretty educated guesses of what another person is thinking or intended if we know them well enough.

But if the author is narrating, why should there be any restrictions? The great joy of being a writer is that you get to play God. You are the creator, breathing life into all your characters on your very own sixth day (after plot, synopsis, snappy strap line, cover image and that incredibly good line of dialogue you came up with after a glass of wine that really needed to be included in a book somewhere). As Creator, you know their innermost thoughts and you dictate their every move – at least in theory. In reality, of course, the moment you create your characters, they develop Free Will and start eating the fruit whereof you distinctly told them, saying ‘thou shalt not eat.’ But if you, the writer, can hear the thoughts of every character on the page, why not share that with your readers? It’s fun!

Oh, and don’t forget the rule that gets you the green pen, every time you break it. Show, don’t tell. Okay, there’s a lot to be said for showing characters’ personality through their words and action, rather than spelling it out. Can you beat the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice where, apart from one of the best opening lines in the English language, and a brief summary at the end, the whole Bennet family is turned inside out through a few short pages of dialogue?

On the other hand, what about Emma, or any of Jane Austen’s other books, which start with chapters of detailed telling. Once a year, at least, I read Iris Murdoch’s The Bell. From the opening sentence, I am treated to 18 pages (on my Kindle) of unrelenting telling, before we get to action and dialogue – and I love every word of it. Is this horror of telling to do with the notion that readers, these days, have an attention span of two seconds? It seems sad that nearly all literature from Austen to Murdoch should be rubbished for not enough ‘showing.’

As a writer, I really itch to break all the rules, because I can’t see what gave the style Stasi the right to dictate how everything should be written. But I won’t. Because I want to published, she sighed.

6 thoughts on “Swimming with the Editing Current

  1. You’ll figure it out, I’m sure, Thorne. I stay away from template mills, as there is no method that’s correct for every writer or even for every story. Some advice is copied from other sites. I’ve also heard of the success bias. A writer sold a million copies, so their method was treated as a template, until someone decided to try something new. Someone has to do it. Why not you?

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  2. Horses for courses. Many of the books I love break one or more of these rules to great effect. Take out the author’s idiosyncrasies and that individuality is lost, too. As for telling – Brideshead Revisited has passages of such rich language I savour them like fine, meltingly beautiful chocolates. Really enjoyed the way you managed to shoehorn so many examples in here. A fine wordsmith should be allowed to use whatever words she chooses!

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    1. Thank you, Alex. I demand the right to ignore all rules. Unfortunately, I can’t also demand the right to be published if I do, so in the end I humbly obey.

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  3. I consider your precise and insightful writing style to be excellent Thorne. Please continue to be God of your creations begged Elizabeth.

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