If you normally write anything more than a grocery list, you would know that certain rules of writing apply. You would make sure that your nouns and verbs agree, you start each sentence with a capital letter, end it with a period and use a comma to separate words in a list. If you have been writing for any length of time and consider yourself a writer, you may follow some more advanced rules,i.e., making sure your nouns and pronouns agree, enclosing your dialog in quotes, limiting your use of adjectives and adverbs and much more.
The English language, we will all agree, is not the easiest one to navigate. Even those of us who pride ourselves on being masters of the art sometimes have to reach for our Elements of Style, as I just did. But styles change. What was great for Shakespeare is taboo for us. And even though we try our best to follow the rules of writing, we may still butcher one or two.
This article by Ben Blatt in Publishers Weekly gave me a little bit of a surprise and put a grin on my face. Blatt searched a database of thousands of books to discover which contemporary scribes break these cherished rules of writing. You may have heard this one about exclamation points – no more than two or three per 100,000 words. This came from Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. Well, according to Blatt, Leonard used 1,651 exclamation points in his over 40 novels – 16 times more than the amount he said we should use. However, in all fairness to Leonard, Blatt found that his use of the exclamation point decreased sharply after he issued that recommendation.
Another thing we writers get our knuckles rapped for is – you guessed it – cliches. Nothing brands you more of a novice than writing things like, “a fish out of water,” “dressed to kill,” etc. And yet, guess who gained the top two spots in Blatt’s database? James Patterson. His Cross Fire crossed the threshold with 242 cliches per 100,000 words followed by Mary, Mary with 218.
So, does that mean we should break the rules of writing? Not unless you are a James Patterson or Danielle Steel. By the way, Ms. Steel starts most of her books with the weather, another taboo, but who cares? Her readers, yours truly included, love her. In fact, I also started my first novel Coming Out of Egypt with a description of the weather – not beautiful like of some Ms. Steel’s, but “dark and stormy weather.” I did that to set the stage for the turbulence to follow in the lives of the characters.
Whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability. Stick to the rules of writing. They are there to guide you, but don’t use them slavishly. Cultivate your own voice, and one day, maybe your name will be in a database of famous writers.
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