Rules of Style

by johannespunkt

Presented with only this for a comment: these are things I need to remind myself when writing; it does not contain some of the more – to me – obvious writing rules such as ‘no rule is omniapplicable’. List updated as of 30-dec-2015. Subject to change; am still figuring things out.

1: start the story where it needs to be started for the rest to make sense, not earlier.

i. chronology is appreciated. Every scene shall be the obvious choice of scene given the preceding scene. This also goes for sentences.

2: use ‘thought/felt’ as little as possible. [The show-don’t-tell rule. Courtesy of Chuck Palahniuk.]

3: no thesis statements/topic sentences. Do not start your paragraphs with ‘Gullvig was in love’ just to follow up with examples of how in love Gullvig is. Just give the examples directly.

4: do use specific examples and not category nouns, if possible. ‘His car drove into a tree’ vs ‘his ’78 Buick hit an oak’.

i. however do not exaggerate; do not confuse or anger with this.

5: if possible, write what people DO rather than what they do NOT do. What they do not do becomes clear from what they do.

i. to accentuate something a person does not do, make hir do the thing in a previous scene; use repetition to highlight the lack of doing.

1. if it is important to show what someone does not do, there is often a good verb for it. E.g. ‘avoided’ or ‘fasted’.

6: read everything aloud. If possible, get someone else to read your shit aloud.

7: as few words as possible to say as much as possible; verbs over phrasal verbs.

i. verbs over nouns.

ii. and over but; metaphor over simile.

8: on flow and feel: sentences trump individual words; paragraphs trump sentences.

9: obsess over details. Rework until it feels right. Do not put anything up that does not feel right. Do not apologize for this.

i. see everything before you write it. [Another show-don’t-tell rule. Courtesy of Stephen King.]

10: murder-your-darlings. If someone has a problem with your writings, listen to them as if they were your conscience. [Courtesy of Kristina S. who knows me by my old name and was a wonderful teacher.]

i. but treasure some darlings. [Courtesy of Warren Enström.]

11. only use ambiguity when you mean both guities.

i. remove all the almosts and somehows, all the seems and appears tos, and words serving similar functions (anything that vagues stuff) from your manuscript. It is now a better manuscript.

12. be more interesting than esoteric. Hooks are important.

i. do not compromise between interesting and esoteric, though: rewrite until it is more interesting without removing the esoteric elements.

1. no one should have to read a sentence more than once to understand it.

13. the only time the reader does not get to partake in essential information is when that is the point of the story. Style is secondary.

i. write. What. You. Mean.

14. if many explanations are in order, mention once what needs explaining, and explain them calmly one by one.

i. only give things names when they need names.

1. double-check that the name is superfluous before excising it.

15. to establish viewpoint character in a 3rd-person paragraph, mention something simple first before divulging their biases. A section may only contain text from one character’s point-of-view.

16. run freely with the metaphors. Organize your kaleidoscope so that the words belong to the image.

17. any given sentence should, upon inspection, only contain one kind of comma, if it contains commas.

18. it is bad luck to talk about stories you are currently writing. Explaining it removes the urge to tell the story, and you are left with a half-finished husk and no motivation. Guard your secrets like a dragon does gold, until they’re polished enough.

19. delete all instances and synonyms of veryactuallyapparently, and  definitely that show up outside of dialogue, but remember that adverbs are your friends. No-one can argue with lugubriouslyabominably, or borderline. (This rule is not in conflict with rule 11.i; borderline does not vague anything, it places another word exactly on a spectrum.)

20. is this the most interesting time in your character’s life? If not, why aren’t you writing about that instead? [Courtesy of Rich Burlew.]

21. coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating. [Courtesy of Emma Coats. (That whole list is great. Go read it every now and again:]