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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)?

55 Comments

  1. My very first rule, and the one I*d put forward if I had to pick only one, is this: “NEVER wait for the story to come to YOU.”
    Most of my fiction is written in a fandom context where probably 80% if not more of the self-professed “writers” will consider “I have no inspiration” a valid excuse for not sitting down on their butts and cranking those words out. It doesn’t matter if what comes out is sometimes complete shit. You got words on the page, and words on the page are words that can be edited. Words that haven’t been written yet, on the other hand, are in no position to ever be improved.

    Most of my writing advice tends to be somewhat snarky and/or facetious, so I’ve been known to phrase the above as “There’s no such thing as inspiration” which of course isn’t entirely true. And sometimes you do write BETTER stuff when inspired.

    Then again, sometimes the stuff you write in a bout of inspiration is completely chaotic, while those words that were like pulling teeth are at least arranged in a logical order. ;)

      1. Sometimes it’s okay to have a project that just doesn’t want to progress. The important thing then, in my opinion, is that you create SOMETHING. I’ve noticed myself that if I force myself to write something, ANYTHING, each day, it’s a lot easier to get inspired “on command” so to speak. :)

    1. I completely agree with you although this has never come to my mind. Thank you for inspiring me, again, to write even if the plot sounds trash to me and then have the words edited and the plot twisted. :)

  2. Great post Daryl. You’re not the only one who feels that way about Franzen. The last one…you have to love before you can be relentless…what DOES that even mean?

    Sitting vs. Chasing, I think that’s kind of like the Oxford comma. Decide the best approach for each project, each sentence, rather than confining yourself to only one mode of operation. Sitting isn’t always contextually relevant to what you’re writing.

    I don’t know. I’ve never been one for strict adherence to rules; I’ve always viewed them more as guidelines, and when you get past a 10th grade level of writing you gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. Know when to walk away, run, sit, or chase.

    Before I was married I didn’t only date blondes or brunettes.

  3. Interesting. For the last one “You have to love before you can be relentless.” That one brought to mind that you have to love people to have the right to say “helpful” things to them. You don’t offer advice to a stranger because you don’t care. People are more likely to listen to someone that loves them, even when they are saying hard (relentless) things. :) Angie

    1. I agree with that. The last point actually made me think the most. It might not make sense to everyone but it did make sense to me as well.

  4. Thank you thank you. Great stuff. Very glad to have this to chew on today as I go about my writing. Big chunks of wisdom to fold in to the pen and paper process. Grateful here for your words.

  5. I agree with the third person and then rules, especially. I think not using “then” is almost ‘common sense. My freshman English teacher in high school looked at me after she read one of my papers and said, “Other students may use words ‘next’ and ‘then.’ I know how you write, and for you, this is lazy.” I also learned early in my career as a journalist to cut out ‘that’ as much as possible.

    My Advanced Grammar teacher said in college ‘interesting’ is the most boring word in the world to her.

    I think everyone must have slightly different rules, because otherwise our writing would not differ in all the wonderful ways they do.

  6. I remember reading the original article in the Guardian and some of Franzen’s suggestions felt a bit self-serving at the time. But I think you are being a bit unfair to the guy – as to loving and being relentless, I tend to agree, especially when it comes to fiction. In order to love, really love, we must be open to vulnerability, shame, perseverance and occasional mind-boggling pain. Only then will we reap the rewards. Doesn’t that apply to writing fiction too?

  7. Franzen may need to work on that reader as friend advice. He seems to have a propensity for ticking people off. Still, he offers some good, original advice, though research-wise, I’m grateful that information is “free and universally accessible.”

    Well, I’d better go. I have to do some writing, then go run some errands. ;)

    Excellent post.

  8. Great post. I completely agree with you about Franzen. Insufferable is the perfect word to describe him. I read The Corrections and was so angry by the time I finished the book. What a waste of ink, paper, and time. Love your commentary in this post.

  9. I have no problem with “then” to indicate an order of events. Overall, I want a writing concoction with the intention and sparseness of Hemingway, the clarity and imagination of C. S. Lewis, and the free for all vision of Lewis Caroll, with a lot “me” thrown in the mix!

  10. Thank you sincerely for your remarks about Franzen. His “rules” are crap. I strongly recommend Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” and mystery writer John D. McDonald’s advice–”Sit down by yourself alone in a room with a table, a chair, some pencils and paper. Sit there and write and don’t come out for about 20 years.” McDonald is the author of the Travis McGee mystery series (for what that’s worth). One of my favorite writers, John O’Hara, did not leave any advice for writing, as far as I know, but his short stories are gems. Writing is like all the other arts and fine wine production–it takes time. I think everyone these days has been so bombarded by publicity that we all believe we absolutely MUST write (or paint or photograph or choreograph or whatever) something so breathtakingly BRILLIANT every time out of the gate that we lose the energy to start or keep going. Please ask Franzen how long it took him to write his most recent book and if it’s less than two years, find out how many grad assistants “contributed” to the final version. I say that because I understand the outline of his latest novel to be so trivial (a woman marries one guy and then spends most of the rest of her life wondering if she should have married the other guy; get REAL!!!) that it should almost be classified as an “anti-novel.” And he got PAID for that!?!?!?
    Sorry this is so long. Maybe I should get out more?

    1. Well, even simple stories can turn into great novels. The core outline of Moby-Dick isn’t terribly complex, for example, but it’s a book full of nuance and horror and beauty and humor.

      As far as I know, Franzen is a professional writer and not a professor with grad students at his beck and call, and I have trouble imagining that he would rely on grad students to flesh out his books. He seems to be nothing if not principled about his work, whether I like the work or not. Freedom was reportedly the work of about a decade. It’s certainly more than a failed-love story, and people have been paid much more for writing far inferior works. I just don’t think Freedom was the towering literary monument that others seem to think it, and I wonder sometimes if Franzen’s not the beneficiary of a case of the Emperor’s new clothes.

      I hear his essays are fantastic.

  11. i don’t think for write something need ruls…ok so we write what come in our minde in the moment ..is diffrent if we write for lecture front of students..there needed to prepere ourselfs..so again i am not agree..thank you

  12. Like everything I’ve ever read by Franzen, and like every ‘writer’s rules’ list I’ve ever seen, some of I like and most of it doesn’t seem terribly grounded in a reality I can share. I’m an almost militant grammarian even in friendly emails, but I’ll break the rules every time if it serves the character and/or story. So rules about verbs and ‘then’ are situational at best and I tend to think these sorts of things shape young minds in ways that probably aren’t for the best. But, like every other set of rules, if it works for you, roll with it.

  13. Freedom was one of the few books I had to give up on. I was excited to read it since I had heard how great it was supposed to be, but just a little ways in I decided not to torture myself with it any longer.

  14. I cartoon, so I have a few caption rules. The first one is get to the point (punch line) as quickly as possible, otherwise you run the risk of losing your audience before they get to the fun bit.
    Marti
    PS. Always love reading your blog. As an engineer, my grammar can always do with a bit of help.

  15. A thought provoking post to say the least.

    I write mainly non-fiction.
    My #1 solid rule is ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH.
    I have chosen to put my story out there. It is filled with scandalous happenings.
    However, now a decade on the other side of hell, I like to spread hope.
    #2 rule is DON’T WALLOW IN THE PROBLEM – FOCUS ON THE SOLUTION
    Personally, I do not want to invest time reading a blog where someone is constantly bitching.
    One may express irritation without whining.

    Thank you for your thoughts!

  16. Daryl – do so agree about Franzen’s comments. Pretentious or what! The thing about fiction is that there ARE no rules, except to hold the attention of your target audience. Whether your aim is to entertain or inform, that’s all you need to know! Surely James Joyce taught us all that? As for not writing in the first person, some of our greatest literary works have been written in that way. I write gardening books for a living and of course one can’t write that sort of stuff in the third person; then when I switch to writing fiction I find I am still more comfortable making that direct link from narrator to reader. It’s a matter of personal style and whatever works for you. Good writing comes naturally – or it doesn’t come at all!

    1. I agree that fiction doesn’t really have any rules, but I also think that in order to break what we’ve come to recognize as rules or guidelines — or to be successful at very difficult things like writing a convincing first-person narrative — you have to be an awfully talented writer. Maybe I’ll take some flak for it, but my contention would be that most of us (I include myself) are at best mediocre writers and maybe ought to stick closer to the middle of the formal path than the creative fringe.

      Joyce was one of the rare authors who could do stuff really off the wall and still (mostly) hold our attention. (And there are lots of Joyce fans who can’t stomach the Wake, which I haven’t tried myself yet.)

  17. Daryl, An interesting post. Something that really jumped out at me as I read it was the statement about poetry (that which disturbs) and your comment that the ones that stuck with you were poems that disturbed the way you saw the world. I liked hearing that because a lot of people only like “beautiful” poetry. Here’s one for you by Margaret Atwood:

    We fit together like a hook and eye:
    A fish hook, and open eye.

    1. And a very good one that. I stink at remembering titles, but I can say that Andrew Hudgins is good at writing the disturbing and the memorable, and there’s another by Peter Taylor about a horse and a barbed wire fence that has stuck with me. Then there’s Dickey’s goat boy.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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 ;-).

  22. 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 :-)

  23. 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?

  24. 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!

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