August 09, 2009

Writers and Restraints (or, Badinage and Discipline.)

I often worry a bit that we writers who frequent those odd dens of insecurity called workshops sometimes demand too much adherence to “rules” – fair enough, to learn and know them is important, and to be aware of what certain editors demand is wise, but quite honestly I think we’re making a rod for our own backs (cliché, sorry) if we run every single phrase through the mill of correctness.

No other expressive art form (music, sculpture, visual arts) demands such rigid subservience to a set of rules that are sometimes arbitrary, often archaic and frequently ill-defined.

A fellow writer, who I know from several workshop sites, and whose work I like and respect, has become almost fanatical in his loathing of adjectives and adverbs, ruthlessly hunting them down and strongly suggesting their removal. He is in some writing workshop where, apparently, all members are being taught to write “properly” and “expressively” and where, I imagine, they will all end up sounding alike.

Obviously, some adherence to the rules of grammar is advisable in order to avoid confusion and to convey ideas with clarity, and I wouldn’t respect anyone who claims to be a master of their craft while maintaining an almost total ignorance of the tools of their trade, but life is messy and often that’s the most truthful way to write about it. My advice is – write clearly, write honestly and write humanely; everything else is dress rules for the madhouse.


  1. Very well put, and I love the last line on the poster.

  2. Thanks Catherine. I'm good at rule 10 - except the writing part...

  3. I like the poster, too.

    We've all heard that an adverb or adjective means you haven't made the right word choice. But sometimes, color or movement can only spring forward with help.

    Most important, though, is to write frequently. The rules (which should be known) will bend according to the style and voice you develop.

    I'm babbling.

  4. Well babbled Robert. I've become most suspicious of writers themselves, the ones who become famous, then become experts with their own set of "rules".

  5. I don't understand why adverbs are so vilified. Aren't they also words? Somebody came up with them.:)

  6. Hi Laura - I think the problem arises when they're overused; a bit like stimulants, mood enhancers, jewellery and all those other things that make life interesing and worthwhile. Used sparingly, imaginatively and with taste, they enhance, enlighten and take the breath away. Great, now I'm babbling... :)