Rebel Without a Clause

Last week, I talked about learning how to let go of the rulebook and just write, but there’s a little more I want to say on the subject.

See, I’ve read a lot of books on the craft of writing, as well as browsing my fair share of writing blogs, and I keep seeing the same rules parroted over and over until I want to scream.  The problem isn’t that these things are wrong. But they shouldn’t be presented as rules.

But the time has come for me to say “No more.”  I am standing my ground and staking my claim.  We have lived under this oppressive writing regime for too long.  It’s time for us to rise up and tell “the man” where to stick it.

What follows is a list of rules which I will no longer tolerate, a litany of chains which must be cast off.  Join me my writing brethren.  Together we can stand against the oppression of these unjust laws.

1. Avoid “Be” Verbs.

This is one I ran into even before I really started writing seriously.  It was in my freshman English class at college, and I turned in a writing assignment only to have it come back a few days later with a big red “C” on it.  I was perplexed.  I had thought the writing was pretty decent, and I didn’t get what had gone wrong.  I went to the teacher about it, and she said, “You’ve got too many ‘be’ verbs in there.  There need to be more active verbs.”

In case you’re not aware, “be” verbs are things like “is”, “are”, “was”, and “am”.  They’re an integral part of the fabric of our language, but for some reason I wasn’t supposed to use them.  So I went back to my dorm and worked for hours on a replacement paper that had absolutely no “be” verbs in it.  I turned it in to the teacher and she seemed perfectly delighted with my work.  I thought to myself “Well, I’ve learned a valuable lesson.  ‘Be’ verbs are evil.”

And that lasted until I went back to my dorm and picked up a book by my favourite author and low and behold I found “be” verbs all over the place.  How had he forgotten such a crucial rule?

It took me a while to learn that it was absolutely fine to use “be” verbs from time to time.  Active verbs do pack a powerful punch and using them more often can help give your prose life, but shoehorning them in where they don’t really work is a bad idea.  Your writing should flow.  If that means using “am” or “was” every now and then, go for it.

2. Show Don’t Tell

Again, this is one that pops up a lot in writing advice books.  And it isn’t bad advice.  Sometimes it’s good to give little details, clues to a character’s personality or mood.

But sometimes it’s fine just to come out and tell me.  Really, it is.

My high school math teacher used to tell a story about a teacher from India she had in college who, after watching her twist and turn her way around solving a particularly tricky equation, told her, “Don’t beat round bush.  Beat bush!”  Sometimes I think that might be good advice for the writers today.

Telling can be a powerful tool because often it takes much less time than showing does.  It gets you in and out fast.  I’m not saying you should be taking shortcuts, but sometimes getting right to the point is preferable to meandering around it in hopes that your reader will eventually figure out what the point is.

3. Never Use Cliches

Every time I see this one it always makes me wonder if the person who made the rule ever read any actual books. Here’s a tip: there’s a reason they’re cliches.  Call it survival of the fittest in the linguistic realm.  There are phrases and idioms that have stood the test of time and lodged themselves into our minds in such a way that most of us don’t even realize we’re using them.  Maybe they carry some special cadence or a catchy bit of alteration.  Oftentimes they slide into our thought patterns without us even realizing they’re there.  That kind of natural flow can be invaluable to the wordsmith.

And again, this rule isn’t wrong.  Sometimes you do need to come up with a way of saying something that is fresh and original. If your work is bogged down with cliche after cliche then by all means get in there and weed them out.  But if the cliche works, it works.  You don’t have to reinvent the wheel in every sentence.  Keep it fresh, but not so fresh that no one know what you’re talking about.

So those are the three rules I really wish you’d break every once in a while.  Now here’s one you can substitute in their place.  In fact you can use this rule almost everywhere in your life, but I’m going to apply it to writing.  Ready?  Here it is.


Yes, that’s all.  It’s simple, but it’s also difficult.  Is your writing full of “be” verbs?  Then you should think about making some of your sentences more active.  Are you telling instead of showing every time?  Maybe you need to be a bit more subtle.  Do you use too many cliches? I think you get the point.

Keep your writing and your life balanced and you’ll be a lot further down the road to success than anyone who finds their way by a list rules.

5 responses to “Rebel Without a Clause

  1. Christine Fonseca

    HA! I really think the balance part is key…to prett much everything.

  2. Great conclusion! I break all those rules all the time anyway. Now, through practice, I’m learning to integrate them in my writing.

    Right now, I am reading How to Be a Writer by Barbara Baig. So far, I’m only in p. 39. It states that we need to sit down and write if we want to get better with writing.

  3. Thank you! Great non-rules. I’m a writer and editor and so sick of absolute rules.
    For example, “I am/was terrified” can be a powerful statement. Sometimes is sums things up in the middle of an action packed scene. Perhaps that isn’t the moment to go into the…. “my gut tensed, my heart raced….” Just freakin’ say it. “I was terrified.” Leave the absolute rules to anal-retentive high school teachers or university profs. The rest of us like flexibility.
    Thanks for writing this blog.
    Mark Aidan Bergin

  4. Follow up to my last comment. I recently read “Vanished” by Joseph Finder. He starts the novel (and it’s a well-written thriller) with….are you ready?: “It was a dark a stormy night.” Talk about breaking the rules. The guy would have been thrown out of every creative writing class in North America with that opener. But he’s a better writer than most of the writing wannabe’s teaching “creative writing.”

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