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On Rules And Writing

The appeal of writers’ rulebooks

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

‘There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.’ This quip, commonly attributed to Somerset Maugham, can be adapted to fit any genre. I sometimes use it when I’m asked to give a presentation to creative writing students. ‘There are three rules for writing the essay’, I begin. My audience waits in hushed anticipation as I observe the strategic pause that’s built into the assertion. Some have already written ‘1’ in their notebooks, pens poised to record my revelation of the first commandment. There’s a mixture of reactions when the punchline comes. If it’s a good class, there will be wry amusement, and a ready grasp of the point that’s being made. If it’s a weak one, students will be disappointed and frustrated. They resent being led up the garden path and believe I’m withholding some secret formula that, if only I would share it, would offer them a sure route to literary success.

Maugham’s mischievous misdirection neatly catches two currents that flow through my own attitude to writing rules. On the one hand, I’m as eager as any novice student to discover tips that might improve my work. On the other, I know perfectly well that as soon as these crystallize into rules I’m unlikely to grant them much credence, still less follow them. If there are any rules for writing, one of them is surely this (however self-contradictory it sounds): writing isn’t a rule-governed activity. Essays – and no doubt the same applies to other genres – go their own way, to wherever that happens to take them, in whatever manner is deemed appropriate by their authors.

Though I have little faith in the authority of rules for writing, I find myself drawn to writing rulebooks. I’m not sure why this is. Might it be because I’m eager to find reassurance that my approach to writing is more than idiosyncratic, that I’m following procedures that are considered effective by other writers? Given the solitariness of writing, perhaps it’s not surprising that someone engaged in it might want to take soundings about how it should be done. Whatever the reason for my attraction to rulebooks, I’m susceptible both to the kind that issue edicts about grammar, syntax, and spelling, and those that offer more encompassing strategies to structure and discipline a writing life. As a result, a small section of my bookshelves is filled with things like Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English, H. W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.

My favourite of all these rule-rich volumes is one that, according to William Zinsser, ‘every writer should read once a year’. I can’t claim such annual re-readings, but I do consult it on a regular basis. This particular rulebook began quite modestly. When the celebrated essayist E. B. White was a student at Cornell University, he took an English course taught by Professor William Strunk. The textbook for the course was a privately printed forty-three-page booklet entitled The Elements of Style. Many years later – long after Strunk’s death – White was commissioned by Macmillan to revise the book for a published version. He added a considerable amount, but the book is still very brief — only 105 pages. The revised edition first appeared in 1959 and has been in print ever since. It has sold over ten million copies.

I know some people don’t like ‘Strunk & White’ (which is how the book is generally referred to). They dismiss it as bossy and opinionated. Geoffrey Pullum, for example, on the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication, delivered a blistering critique under the heading ‘50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice’. He condemns the book’s ‘toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity.’ Unlike Pullum, I enjoy the crisp certainties of Strunk & White’s verbal rulings. I grin when they suggest that:

Insightful is ‘a suspicious overstatement for “perceptive”. […] Usually, it crops up merely to inflate the commonplace’.

Interesting is ‘an unconvincing word. […] Instead of announcing that what you are about to tell is interesting, make it so’.

Meaningful is ‘a bankrupt adjective. Choose another, or rephrase’.

Prestigious is ‘an adjective of last resort. It’s in the dictionary, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it.’

Qualifiers – rather, very, little, pretty etc. – are ‘leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words’.

As well as their edicts on individual words, I warm to Strunk & White’s more general pronouncements. For instance, ‘Writing, to be effective, must closely follow the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur.’ Or, best of all:

 Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer makes all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

This is what Mark Garvey calls ‘Strunk’s Sermon on the Mount, the nugget that cradles the book’s DNA and that might be sufficient to reconstitute The Elements of Style in its entirety should the rest of it, like heaven and earth, pass away’. Garvey’s book, Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, reassures me that I’m not alone in rating this small rulebook highly. It has many fans.

What I like best about The Elements of Style is its clear recognition of the limitation of rules. There is ‘no infallible guide to good writing’, say its authors, ‘no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which writers may shape their course’.

This doesn’t mean that writing is anarchic. Clearly there are all sorts of principles writers follow, like good law-abiding citizens, obedient to the protocols of practice that are regnant in their genres. If authors ignore the rules of grammar, punctuation, or spelling, if they disregard expectations of how long a sentence, paragraph, short story or poem is expected to be, if they allow repetition, padding, non sequitur, and error to creep into their writing, if they can’t be bothered to read over their own work and shear away unnecessary words, they’re unlikely to make much headway. But such things seem less like obeying a set of rules than observing those courtesies of communication that ensure whatever’s written carries its cargo successfully from one person to another. That, after all, is the point. As Strunk & White put it, ‘the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward’ is ‘to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts’.

Thinking about rules and writing I’m often reminded of Joseph Brodsky’s observation: ‘If you are in banking or if you fly an aircraft, you know that after you gain a substantial amount of expertise you are more or less guaranteed a profit or a safe landing.’

In other words, if you learn the rules of these particular activities and follow them, you will have a reasonable expectation of success. By contrast, says Brodsky, ‘in the business of writing what one accumulates is not expertise but uncertainties’. Far from viewing such accumulation negatively, Brodsky sees it as ‘another name for craft.’

For all their terse dicta about words and writing, Strunk & White show a keen awareness of uncertainty. They are masters of craft. They recognise that however many rules of usage and procedure they formulate, none of them answer the fundamental question: Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind?

They draw a parallel with music, pointing out that no one knows why one combination of notes is ‘capable of stirring the listener deeply’, whilst ‘the same notes slightly rearranged are impotent’. These, they say, are ‘high mysteries’ that are beyond the reach of rules.

If I encounter students who are daunted by such mysteries and unnerved by Brodsky’s uncertainties, who desperately want concrete guidance for their writing, I do sometimes relent and take a step in the direction of offering rules that they can jot down in a numbered list. Usually, I point them to what Graham Good says in The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay: Anyone who can look attentively, think freely, and write clearly can be an essayist; no other qualifications are needed.

Attentive looking, free thinking, and clear writing are not straightforward rules that can be followed, they’re more aspirational than regulatory, but they offer the closest I can come to providing ‘Three Rules for Writing the Essay’ without immediately feeling the need to add a Maugham-esque rebuttal.

Chris Arthur’s most recent essay collection is Hidden Cargoes. Among his writing prizes are the Sewanee Review’s Monroe K. Spears Prize, the Akegarasu Haya Prize, and the Times Higher/Palgrave Macmillan Writing Prize in the Humanities.

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