Writing and Thou Shalt Nots

I was writing up a note for my Thinking Sideways project when a topic came up that I wanted to talk about here as well, and in more detail.

When I discovered Internet writing communities, I was hammered with a bunch of "thou shalt not"s, as are most writers, no matter where they stand on the experience scale.

Even though I had written a ton by that point (two novels, easily 50 short stories, and a couple novelettes, plays, and poems), because of my isolation, I was vulnerable to peer pressure. I figured that I’d been hacking my way through, making it up as I went along, and so must have picked up a ton of bad habits. If the "Internet" says it’s right, I must, therefore, be wrong.

To this day, I’m still fighting the impact of that period in my writing career, and to some degree, I’m still vulnerable and carrying out "thou shalt"s that if I took a step back and looked at them, are insane.

Ones I’ve conquered include "thou shalt not use the verb ‘to be’" and "thou shalt not use ‘that’" (which has the dangerous companion of "thou shalt replace ‘that’ with ‘which’ at every opportunity where ‘that’ cannot be purged," something resulting in broken grammar on top of unintelligible sentences).

My father broke me of "that" simply because he could not comprehend my sentences and wasn’t willing to jump through the elaborate hoops expected so we can avoid a perfectly good word that (note ;)) happens to stand out when overused.

However, this concept has recently hit me on two fronts. One of the processes suggested by Holly Lisle in Thinking Sideways contradicts the "general rules" and is actually something I used to do before facing those same rules and bowing to them.

A while back, a friend edited a book for me that had two separate voices, one omniscient and one close third. She said choose one…but more importantly, choose either. I had a strong omniscient voice when I started writing that was crushed out of me, so I’ve substituted with a super close third. Now that change I regret with a vague sadness, but a close third is more of what the market is looking for and I’m happy with the new style, except that my third is SO close that it sometimes confuses people. SIGH.

But it’s a more recent happening that brought me to writing this post.

I am in the process of collecting the crits of From the Sea (Selkie) into a single document so I can evaluate the trends. First of all, if the OWW trend of controversial stories succeeding holds true, I’ve got it made :p. I’m working on the third of four and there’s significant disagreement about certain characters and situations :). But that’s beside the point.

In going through this story and seeing their comments, I realized, had a full-on DUH moment, that I’m still crippled by one of those "thou shalt not"s.

Some time back, I was told not once but repeatedly that it is a point of view (POV) slip to say someone smiled because they can’t see their own face. This started an endless round of arguments and warped my writing FOREVER!!!!! Okay, drama over, now that I’ve realized it, I can fix it too.

Instead of avoiding the act in the POV character, I went about coming up with ways that made obvious what we all know, which is that we KNOW when we smile. So I have smiles curling lips and pulling cheeks and…(sounds familiar? ;)) It’s too much. It’s ridiculous. It’s annoying! I do not question why my critters pointed it out in the feedback. I question how I could have continued on this vein without realizing myself that I’d been had.

Double SIGH.

So I have my work cut out for me in this edit, in the edit of everything written prior to this moment, and in the writing of everything ever after, but I will break myself of this bad habit. I will rise above the "thou shalt"s and just write.

It seems to me there’s a sense among writers that every opinion must be validated to hold weight. It’s not enough to say this seems awkward to me, but rather some rule must rise from the deep to put authority behind the opinion. Only trouble is that the opinion gives writers a choice whether to adopt the change or stick with what they have. These manufactured rules, though, either make the critter seem foolish or can scar the writer for some time to come.

There are rules about writing. Grammar rules that are fixed (or mostly so) like capitalization and putting an end punctuation mark at the end of a sentence. What people need to remember is style rules are not rules. They’re at best guidelines and at worse yokes around the necks of people trying to succeed.

The only rules I’ve heard that stand firm for me are these:

1) Thou shalt not confuse the reader (unless it serves a plot purpose).
2) Thou shalt entertain.

And, as you can see from the parenthetical phrase after the first, even those have caveats.

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14 Responses to Writing and Thou Shalt Nots

  1. YES. I’m fighting a lot of these myself, right now. (Self-Editing for Fiction Writers may be a great book, but its thrown me into a tailspin of tagless dialogue that’s STILL making half my scenes read like something from a bad screenplay.)

    I’ve found sometimes what works well for me is to deliberately start using a more stylistic or poetic form: sentence fragments, metaphors that are emotionally true but logically unexpected, paranthetical asides, all wrapped up in a very close, first-person POV that works more like stream-of-consciousness than traditional narrative. Not for everyone, but it knocks me out of editor-mode and into character-mode, where thoughts and sensations are being translated directly to the page without judgement. Or something. I can’t really put it in to words, which is, I suspect, exactly why it works. 🙂

    If I can’t loosen up enough to do that, though, I still spend hours frowning at a sentence, trying to decide how to phrase it so it doesn’t have a “that” in it. Aargh.

  2. baka_kit says:

    I’ve been fighting this one for what seems like forever (I had a character who refused to tell me her first name because I’d read the rule that “thou shalt always refer to a female character by her first name” even if she’s an Admiral, presumably. (Even sillier; I’d been in the Navy, I knew that that wouldn’t be how they’d think of her. Or even how she’d think of herself; by the time I got out of Boot Camp I was thinking of myself as “Russell,” not “Kit.”

    Other stupid rules: you should never refer to an animal as “he” or “she,” only “it.” (Definitely a characterization issue which should be decided on a case-by-case basis.) Never ever use passive sentence construction (generally good advice, but it can lead to some ridiculous sentence constructions and really, once or twice in a novel isn’t gonna kill it.)

    I’m still fighting it, but when the rules raise their ugly head, I put on my imaginary pirate hat, sneer, and tell myself “they’re more like guidelines anyway.”

    • marfisk says:

      LOL on the sneer, but yeah, it takes effort to remind ourselves that the rules are not actual rules.

      P.S. The only time my animals/aliens are “it”s are when they are gender neutral or fixed, or when the POV doesn’t know and doesn’t care to guess.

      • baka_kit says:

        When/if I ever get a paid account again, I think I’m going to get a Barbossa icon with that quote, for when my inner critic raises its ugly head.

        Unfortunately, I don’t think my characters who live in a society with two systems of gender neutral pronouns actually encounter any animals. (I suspect the MC would think of the animal as “it” anyhow, and her sister would use he, she, or ze if she knew, and ey if she didn’t.)

  3. Anonymous says:


    Interestingly enough, I know when I’m smiling (even though I do it rarely). What I didn’t know until I had a picture taken recently was that I smile lopsided. Only half my mouth smiles. My smiling muscles must be so out of shape, that I only half smile these days.

    Based upon that observation, I’d suggest that I as a character know I’m smiling, but only the observer of the smile can characterize what my smile looks like. As a character, I can hope I’m smiling in a particular way and can think about that, but unless I’m sitting at the bar looking into the mirror behind it as I look at the reflection of the person next to me, I can’t verify if I’m pulling off the look I’m going for.


    • marfisk says:

      Re: Smiling

      You know, this may be another one of those things like the fact that I have an extreme sense of smell, highly developed taste and touch, and odd hearing pared with poor visual awareness. I completely know how I form specific expressions because I feel them. The weirdest thing has been that over the last couple years I realized I had adopted some of my mom’s expressions. What’s weird is that the moment of realization came not because I was looking at a mirror but rather, “So THAT’s how that feels!” I guess it’s one of those things that unless you’re like me it sounds implausible. Sort of like the people who see numbers as colors.

      • janwhit says:

        Re: Smiling

        I do the mom-mimic all the time subconsciously. She’s been gone for nearly 15 years, so maybe I’m channelling her. LOL

        But you’re right about the ‘rules’. It’s more the functional guidance of a ‘rule’ that is important and being aware that those functions exist in how words are ordered or the type of word used.

        You mentioned that punctuation goes at the end of the sentence. Uh, in English and other languages, but not all of them. Don’t some romance languages start with the question mark or exclamation point?

        • marfisk says:

          Re: Smiling

          So you know when you’re making “that face” without verifying with a mirror? Glad to know I’m not alone.

          And yes, I’m talking about rules in English, because those rules get really crazy when you try to apply them across languages. Spanish has the inverted question mark or exclamation point at the beginning, the order of types of words is completely different in many, and don’t get me started on German ;).

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