With five books now published under my name and two more which I edited for other authors, it may interest some to know what rules I follow when I write. In another article I’ve addressed what makes me an expert in my native language, American English.
Presented as a countdown, here are 25 rules on style, word selection, and grammar that comprise the core of my discipline while writing, whether it’s an email message, a social media post, or a novel. These rules are in no particular sequence except that number one is truly my number one rule.
I don’t argue that you are wrong if you dismiss any of these strictures. My objective in following them is to convey my message or my story directly and clearly. It is not as easy to use all these rules in ordinary conversation because, when I write, I compose my sentences painstakingly, revise constantly, and finish the entire composition before letting anyone see it. Talking as haltingly as I write would be awkward for everyone involved.
25. Start with something to say, respect the reader’s time, organize it, and say it. I once read about 100 pages of a John Updike novel, (Rabbit something-or-other), and then gave up on it. I had no idea what was happening or to whom. Maybe some readers enjoy being cheated of information, but I’m not one of them.
24. I believe in restoring to use words that have slipped from favor. I work such a word into my writing especially when the word that has become more common is less precise or is ambiguous. Recently someone asked whether I had any money “on me.” I replied that I have five dollars and some coins in my pocket. He remarked that most people would say they have five dollars and change. I understand what it means when people say change instead of coins; let them say it. I try to imagine how expressions like that are interpreted by people from other countries who are learning to speak our language.
23. Use the right word. If I adhered to this in ordinary conversation I would only falter as I speak. I try to use the best word when talking, though. I search for words as I speak, of course, but I’ll forge ahead even when I can’t come up with the word that I want, as long as I’ve come close enough to be understood. What’s more, in a conversation, I can tell whether I succeeded in conveying my message because listeners respond. They answer, they nod, they acknowledge with facial expressions. I can corral and lasso the right word and try again if I perceive that I’ve been misunderstood. In writing a novel, I can’t just give it a try and let it slide.
22. Use the concise form of the right word. When you can say (write) use instead of utilize, do so. A doctor once insisted to me that there is a difference between dilatation and dilation, but he couldn’t explain it. I contended that dilation is a noun derived from the verb, dilate. So, I asked, is dilatation derived from the nonexistent verb dilatate? He snubbed me after that.
21. I avoid the vernacular of the present, especially when writing about the past. I want someone who picks up my book fifty years from now to understand it. Even the urban dictionaries of today will be hard to find a half century from now, and what’s more, I’m not urban. Lest I need to say it, I don’t give a damn about political correctness, either.
20. I avoid adding up, out, and other tags to verbs that don’t need it. “Did you send [out] the invitations?” “I did, and I used [up] all the stamps in the drawer.”
19. Apparently it has become permissible to trim although to though. What’s the point of that? To save two letters? There is a difference. It sounds wrong to me, so when I mean although I use although. There are proper places to use though, though. In the same way, many writers now trim the first syllable from until. Usually they cut two letter from the beginning and then double the last letter, saving one character each time they write the word. There is a different between till and until. If I want to shorten until — in dialog for instance — I will write ’til.
18. When someone says or writes I thought to myself, I want to ask: To whom else would you think? I don’t add to myself when I say I think. I simply think.
17. Many people don’t know whether to use or not after whether. Whether can usually stand alone.
16. The phrase, as far as, (short for as far as I’m concerned), begs to be erased from our lingo. The same applies to a thousand other phrases that have become mangled in similar manner. I watch for these mutations and avoid them.
15. What you need to do is you need to stop starting a sentence with What unless you’re asking a question. The thing you need to realize is (What you need to realize is) that there are variations on that construction and all are awkward. What I’ve heard when some people start sentences that way in conversation is is is they will say is two or three times before they get to the rest of the sentence.
14. As I write I consider how a translator might need to deconstruct each sentence in order to render it in any other language. For instance, how would the phrase, as far as I’m concerned, be expressed in other languages?
13. That is why I avoid idioms most of the time. Where I wrote earlier that I don’t give a damn about something, I used an idiom that it is difficult to replace effectively. But I always question the literal meaning of an idiom, and if it makes no sense literally I look for some way to express the same thing in words that can’t be mis-translated. Once in a while I don’t give a damn and use the idiom as it stands, though.
12. I write in full sentences. I’ve recently begun reading TransAtlantic: A Novel on my Kindle. By Colum McCann. I discovered him when I read an article he had written. On the internet. The article was so well-written that I wanted to get acquainted with his fiction. So I bought one of his ebooks. Apparently it’s his style. To write in phrases. In his novels, that is. Not complete sentences. Maybe the story is pretty good. But my editor’s eye is continually repairing his prose. To put his phrases together. Into sentences. It can be effective in a novel to let a short phrase or even a single word stand as a complete sentence, capitalized and finished with a period. But it’s effective if done sparingly. Dropping a period after every third word throughout a book creates speed bumps for this reader. I don’t like it.
11. I avoid a sentence construction that leads to a he/she or his/her conflict in the predicate or in a later clause. (“Any driver exceeding the speed limit by more than 30 miles per hour will automatically lose his/her motor vehicle operator’s license.”) I avoid a construction that some would argue can be resolved only by matching a plural pronoun with a singular subject. (“Any driver exceeding the speed limit by more than 30 miles per hour will automatically lose their motor vehicle operator’s license.”) It is always possible and usually easy to unobtrusively rearrange a sentence. (“Loss of the license to operate a motor vehicle is the automatic consequence of exceeding the speed limit by more than 30 miles per hour,” or “Any driver exceeding the speed limit by more than 30 miles per hour will automatically lose the license to operate a motor vehicle.”)
10. A pronoun needs a clear antecedent. As I write, I try to leave no doubt who or what is referred to by every pronoun.
9. Words indiscriminately capitalized are speed bumps for a reader. And yet a word sometimes presents a challenge. The equator circles the earth halfway between the poles. My back yard has some good earth for planting an early garden. The first four planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, are separated from the rest by the Asteroid Belt. Consistency is the key when discretion in capitalization is allowed, as it is here. The compass directions, north, south, east, and west, need not be capitalized, but what if someone comes from the east and wants to live in the West, meaning that region of the USA west of the Mississippi and famous for cowboys and cactus? I was born in the South, meaning that region of the eastern USA that lies south of the Mason-Dixon line. What do you do when you want to distinguish the Southwest from the Northeast? In the song, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is the line: “From out of the east a stranger came, a law book in his hand…” He merely came from somewhere east of the song’s setting — a compass direction. I capitalize the commonly-used name of a region but not a compass direction. I’ve noticed, in fact, that, although the West is often deemed a proper region, the east is not. I capitalize the Earth as one of the planets but not when the earth is a substitute for the world — when it refers to nothing outside itself. I apply the principles I’ve given in these examples to other words similarly in question.
8. People do speak in sentence fragments. Speech is normally immediate, spontaneous, and sloppy. Some authors adopt a writing style that imitates speech. I think that kind of writing belongs in dialog but not in prose. That’s merely my opinion.
7. There is a difference between in and into, between on and onto. Sometimes in can replace into and on can replace onto with no loss of meaning but sometimes not.
6. There is a trend, borne of convenience, I suppose, to unite two words which seem to belong together. It has become acceptable to write someday and sometime as we do somewhere and somebody, to write anymore as we do anywhere. I haven’t yielded to this trend. I don’t give it any thought any more. Some day when I have some time to kill I may consider capitulating, but it will take some time for anyone to persuade me to do it.
5. Whenever I read a modern novel (1900s to present) I am almost sure to encounter the words indefatigable, ineluctable, and inexorable or their adverbial forms. Therefore I have excluded them from my lexicon. There are a few other “literary” words such as those that I avoid just as carefully, although I usually don’t think of them until the moment comes to decide whether to use them. I also avoid a word when it is not only commonly overused but used without regard for its literal meaning. Two examples are amazing and incredible.
4. I strive to render every sentence in the active voice. Sometimes, though, the passive voice works better.
3. I ignore the advice, found in many guides for writers, to omit all adverbs. Yes, they are imprecise and therefore have no place in laws, policies, and regulations. Even though I strive to use the right word, there are some times when the right verb is enhanced by an adverb. Used well, adverbs enhance action as spices enhance food. They can intensify the tone of a verb, contribute an emotional element, or exaggerate something absurd.
2. When writing dialog, if a word stands in for someone’s name I capitalize it. “What do you think, Honey?” “I’m listening, Son.” “Say that again, will you, Young Man?” This is merely my own rule for myself.
1. In the five books I’ve written I’ve had no use for the seriously superfluous word got and its past participle, gotten. You’ll never find it in my writing, except in the preceding sentence. There is always a better construction. (Got is the word that gives you expressions such as: “A lot of beer got drunk at the party.”)
I’m sure that I adhere to other rules as well which I may not even be aware of. Following these rules may make my writing sound formal, even archaic. I don’t care, because I believe it results in a quick read that is clear, easy to follow, and leaves no doubt what I intended to say. Assuming that I have an entertaining, informative story to tell, I believe my rules help express it effectively.
Rules such as these partly define my “voice” as an author as well. Voice also includes the ways in which an author juxtaposes words, the degree of intimacy that each character exposes, the hidden elements that a reader doesn’t notice until a second or third read-through, the type of humor employed, the pacing, the sequence in which information is presented and its timing, and much more.
Challenge me on these rules. Did I miss any important ones? Tell me yours. Have you found any instances in my work where I’ve strayed from my discipline?