Rules for Writing

Via this blog, I was turned on to some rules of writing that author Jonathan Franzen submitted to The Guardian.…

Via this blog, I was turned on to some rules of writing that author Jonathan Franzen submitted to The Guardian. I’m no fan of Jonathan Franzen. In fact, I find him insufferable, and I’m maybe the only person in the world who doesn’t even think he’s that great a writer (I thought Freedom was really weak). Still, lots of people admire the guy, and he’s got a couple of acclaimed literary fiction books under his belt, so maybe he knows what he’s talking about. Here are his rules, with my comments.

The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

This comes up a lot in experimental writing, or at least writing that toys with the conventions most of us are used to, and I think it’s good advice. Generally I think it’s good advice to write in a way that helps your reader get what you’re saying. (That said, some of the books I most enjoy reading are the ones that make me really work my brain.)

Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.

This one seems tone deaf (there’s not much I can think of in Franzen’s latest that’s newly frightening or unknown) and maybe a little over-specific. I do think writing that unsettles the reader in one way or another — without being simply controversial for the sake of unsettling readers — can very often be powerful. I once read the statement that “poetry is that which disturbs,” and it’s true enough that of the many poems I’ve read, the ones that disrupted something in my way of looking at the world or that just touched on a memorably disturbing topic are the ones that have stuck with me. There merely sensational, however, is merely sensational.

Never use the word “then” as a ­conjunction – we have “and” for this purpose. Substituting “then” is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many “ands” on the page.

What he’s talking about here is a sentence like “we went to the store then went home to cook dinner.” Sure, sure, it’s fine advice, and it’s not generally going to hurt anything to add an “and” in there so that you have a proper conjunction. But it’s a little silly to suggest that this is a top ten rule of serious writers.

Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.

I think he’s probably right on the whole here with respect to fiction. Naturally, some of this advice doesn’t twist around and apply so well to non-fiction blogging.

When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

Franzen’s navel-gazing here and sort of shaking his fist at the internet. It seems a cranky gripe rather than a rule worthy of a top ten list for serious writers.

The most purely autobiographical ­fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more auto­biographical story than “The Metamorphosis”.

This one’s really interesting to me, and I think there’s some truth to it. He’s suggesting that it’s the intangible, abstract things about us that make up who we are and that you can readily enough shift the tangibles around in your writing so that you’re depicting people who are perhaps less ho-hum than you are while still addressing the sorts of universal problems that help shape your autobiography. Blogging, of course, tends reasonably enough to adopt the opposite approach, favoring authenticity over art and abstraction.

You see more sitting still than chasing after.

I think this probably varies quite a lot depending on what you’re writing about. The posture Franzen is adopting here is one of the contemplative observer — certainly a valid if self-aggrandizing posture — but there’s also much great writing put out by chasers.

It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

Franzen is again just shaking his fist at the internet. It’s better here to say that it’s doubtful that anyone who’s not capable of some measure of self-discipline is writing good fiction. So his generic point holds up, but his statement of it is shrill. This advice applies not just to fiction writers, of course. Without some discipline, you’ll never get enough tolerably decent words on the screen to wind up with a blog post that anybody but your mom and your Great Aunt Matilda is interested in reading.

Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

This is another one that’s very, well, interesting. We’re told to avoid linking verbs when possible and to use vivid, descriptive language, but is it possible to go overboard? It definitely is, and I’ll confess that I’ve been caught a few times using verbs that were so “interesting” that they distracted from their sentences. In other words, sometimes a character needs to walk and not to sashay.

You have to love before you can be relentless.

I almost lopped this one off the list. It’s a fine, high-minded statement that I don’t think really means a whole lot.

So, do any of these rules for serious fiction writers strike a chord with you? What are your own rules for writing (fiction or otherwise)?


  1. You are certainly not the only one who finds Franzen insufferable. I’m a high school English teacher and a Literature grad student who cannot stand Franzen or anyone fairly close to his attitude or output. Life’s too short.

  2. He is insufferable and his hatred of technology, the internet, Twitter, etc. is pure ugliness. I found your open-minded responses to him spot on. I’m reading “Henry Miller on Writing” now, and his advice is unbelievably good because it is from the heart. Franzen works hard to be a snob and works hard to dislike whatever seems good in the world. I thought “The Corrections” was a very good work, but “Freedom” was quite puerile.

  3. I resonate most with the final, almost-lobbed-off statement. None of the rules of writing will make you the great writer you want to be – a writer that people seek out and pore over – unless you absolutely love, with a relentless energy, what you’re writing.
    To be passionate about your subject is the first rule of creating something people will have an emotional connection to.
    Of course if you’re truly passionate, you’ll work on the grammar and spelling and sentence construction until it’s perfect… and you won’t spend all day on Twitter.

  4. Perhaps the “unknown” needs to be more loosely interpreted, a sense of exploring something? I do feel that writers who are too sure in advance of what the outcome or “message” will be, tend to be both condescending and boring.
    My personal Riters’ rulz ;-).

  5. Is it just me or is this writer’s block thing stalking others beside me. I am more often than not finding it harder to write. This does not necessarily mean I don’t write. I try to be ready at all times because ‘inspiration’ comes like deja vu. Here one second and gone the next…which is why I’ll be inviting guest authors next…unless any of you have better advice :-)

  6. I don’t agree with #2. I think a lot of good fiction deals with the “ordinary”. Stuff we can relate to in some way, that connects us. Not that frightening and unknown can’t make for good stories, but its certainly not necessary. For example; popular book turned movie “The Help”.
    Fiction, based on what was plain ordinary reality at the time.

    I am probably one of the few people who agree with him, but in the following article on the site you refer to, he mentions hating Twitter, that is discourages critical thinking. I agree. I’m also not a Facebook fan. This is a question I would LOVE to post somewhere (maybe I’ll have to start a blog, after all!) Can one be a writer and hate Facebook and Twitter?

  7. Ooh, a big problem with these replies is that I just reel them off, and am thinking faster than I type, and never proofread! Usually leaving at least several of what I assume people will realize are typos. But I guess in this day and age, who knows! I won’t sweat the small stuff, but you probably already figured them out: 1. but it’s not…. (not its) 2. that it discourages…(not is). I was also taught never to start a sentence with “but”, but I’m breaking that rule. Sorry

    Another rule. Always proofread!
    Or – another question: Is it necessary/important to have correct grammar, spelling, punctuation; etc. in blog or other “chat” replies? We sure don’t on Twitter or Facebook!

Comments are closed.