fraught with uncertainty

Those of us who write, I think, find it a practice fraught with uncertainty. We are almost never sure that we’ve chosen the right words and put them in the right order to say the right thing or even that what we have to say is worth the trouble of saying. We tend to approach rewriting with trepidation, not in small part because we are reminded again that our words still don’t measure up, at least in the ways we think they should or could. We submit our stories to magazines with both crossed fingers and a barely hushed certainty that we have no chance of acceptance. And if our stories are published, we ruefully admit that hardly anyone will see them. We work in doubt all of the time.

(Tell me I’m not alone in this.)

And so I can see the appeal of writing “rules” to liberate us from some of this uncertainty. Even writing books and classes* can offer a haven from this doubt, extending the bogus balm of a clear path through the forest of our anxieties. (Mixing metaphors is, of course, against the rules.)

But I think that for creative writing, such rules are dangerous and damaging, at least to the writing if not to the unsteady mind of the writer. I’m not talking about writing high school term papers or legal documents or technical manuals (all of which I have written in my storied past) but about the kind of creative writing that tries to express something new or something old in a new way. The kind of writing that evolves our language and our humanity. The kind of writing we do.

I can remember one writer who pontificated in her blog that dialog tags should only use the word “said” (or the proper variation thereof). She pointed to a successful fiction writer who had originally made this assertion, and that seemed justification enuf for her to accept it as gospel. N’er mind the thousands of successful fiction writers who didn’t follow this rule. She’d found her little rule that spared her some hard work and gave her a haughty assurance that she was right. (I don’t read her blog anymore.)

We’re supposed to avoid the passive voice; we’re supposed to write directly. Yet sometimes the correct point to make is that the race was run, not that the runners ran the race.

We’re supposed to avoid adverbs — or as one blogger called them, “-ly” words. We supposed to avoid split infinitives too. Yet one of the most memorable snippets in our culture violates both of those succintly: “to boldly go where no man has gone before!” (I think the exclamation point is now considered unacceptable too; same with the semicolon. And sentence fragments.)

My point — and yes, I do have one — is that creative writers are privileged, even required, to break the rules. It is our job to invent expression. Surrendering to rules is squandering our talent and dodging our responsibility. I’d much rather write in the wide frontier of uncertainty than in the stultifying small room of rules.

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I’ve written about this subject before.

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*In the unwinnable war between those who have opinions on this subject, I am a partisan to the belief that while creative writing can’t really be taught, it can be learned.

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3 Comments on “fraught with uncertainty”


  1. While I tend toward he said/she said, in things I read, I don’t mind people doing different things. “Blah blah blah,” he pontificated conspiratorially will make me tired and probably put something aside, but if others like it, power to them all. I know people people who will fume over: Sarah slammed her hand in the car door. “Ouch!” she exclaimed — but that’s not going to send me into a frenzy.

    I end sentences with prepositions. At work — as a technical writer — it drives my supervisor insane. I say “Look in the folio” instead of “Look within the folio” and people at work change it to within. It’s a technical document — nobody cares as long as the instruction is good. (I also fight for periods after all bullet points because I’ve seriously seen companies lose thousands of dollar arguing about when to use periods after bullet points and when not to. At that job, it was more important keeping planes in the air than trying to teach a mechanic that in some cases, use a period on the last bullet point (and do entirely different things in these other situations).

    I love Oxford commas, but if it’s AP Style, I drop them. If you paid me great money and your style guide called for tildes instead of commas, I’d use tildes. As long as people get the points being made, I’m good. I have my preferences, but I’ve seen people who break the rules who are much better natural writers than those clustering together and pointing and saying, “Look at what they did!”

    There are enough people writing different things that you will always find the thing that appeals to you. I think it’s wonderful. There are so many things out there, some of which sells well, that I will never read, but anytime someone comes home after a long day or work and sits down to write and read, that’s something I can’t despise…even if it’s not my thing.

    I read about 1/4 of the first Twilight book and thought it was terrible. I read excerpts of 50 Shades of Grey and thought that I was too hard on Twilight. But the existence of those books isn’t preventing others from writing books I love. I have friends who say it’s a travesty that some books sell more than the books they love, but if one wants to appeal to the masses, they are going to have to most likely write a certain kind of book. (Or ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE.)

    I’m just happy people are reading and writing and doing things that make them happy. So it’s not just you. I definitely have my opinions and preferences, but they are not so cherished that the existence of things I don’t like get in the way at all.


  2. I would comment on this, but I’m still too caught up on CW can’t be taught, but it can be learned. I can’t decide how I feel about it.

    I think it can be taught. Maybe not super well, but everyone who writes can be made a better writer.

  3. Annam Says:

    You’re not alone… it doesn’t help that literary journals seem to be publishing the same stuff, which makes me think that there is a certain formula that I must adhere to in order to get published!


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