Nine Writing No-Nos

I meant to post last week, but I contracted cholera (not really, my mom thinks it was the flu) and was out of commission for a good three days. I did continue to go to work, but I don’t remember anything that happened during those three days or anything that I edited. It was not good. My colleagues would talk to me, and I knew they were talking to me, and I would just stare at them blankly. Then I would go into a coughing fit and worry everyone for about nine seconds. Then I’d blink and stare at my screen as if nothing had happened.

The one good thing about being on my deathbed at work was that I got a lot of pity, and two of my male coworkers happily refilled my orange juice cup all day long. Ah, chivalry. It’s nice to milk it.

A post I’ve been wanting to do for a while is one that addresses the rules of writing that I rigidly enforce with my authors and then break in my own writing.

However, before I do that, I’d like to give two reasons I break said rules.
1. Jim Wilcox
2. Lynne Truss

1. I have told this story a lot because it’s so flattering. But perhaps there are a select few who haven’t heard it yet. When I was in college and taking Advanced Grammar with my favorite professor ever, Jim Wilcox, I frequently went to him with grammatical questions that gave me particular trouble. After I posed one such question and provided two “right” answers and asked him if there was a preferred one, he said something to the effect of:

“Audra, you are so good at grammar that you can start making up your own rules.”

Then he suggested we write a grammar book together. A project I’d have dived into wholeheartedly if not for fear I’d let him down because I possess not half the wit he does.

2. Ay, Lynne Truss again?! Yes, Lynne Truss again. I consider her my friend, though she does not know me. I feel she is one of the only people in the world who would truly understand me. In her book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, which we discussed at length last time, in her chapter on commas, she discusses the comma splice (which she sometimes calls the splice comma) and the grievous sin of using it. She goes on to say the following:

Now, so many highly respected writers adopt the splice comma that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you’re famous. . . . Done knowingly by an established writer, the comma splice is effective, poetic, dashing. Done equally knowingly by people who are not published writers, it can look weak or presumptuous. Done ignorantly by ignorant people, it is awful.

The comma splice is not a rule I tend to break often. However, I take the principle she applies specifically to the comma splice and apply it to my writing style as a whole. Technically, I would fall into her second categorization: done equally knowingly by people who are not published writers, it can look weak or presumptuous. However, with the support and laud of Jim Wilcox behind me (which I don’t necessarily have now, but having it at one time is as good as having it for life), I am easily bumped to the “established writer” category so that my violation of any rules of writing is pulled off (in my opinion) as effective, poetic, dashing.

That said, let’s get on with it. Here are nine rules I regularly enforce with my authors but break regularly myself and in fact did so in the first two posts on this blog.

1. Don’t veer too much from the thesis. You’ll lose the reader’s interest. Stick to the point.
But alas, as the afternoon wore on and the little bugger did not show up – acting like a perfect bastard of a grade-school boy who promises to meet you at the fence separating your babysitters’ backyards at four o’clock so you can discuss your ‘relationship status’ but then mysteriously goes AWOL without so much as a note impaled on the links of chain – where was I? Oh yeah. As the afternoon wore on . . .

2. Parenthetical thoughts are rarely essential or even effective. Stay focused and leave these out.
People who have sub-par grammar can still be hilarious, or kind, or sensitive, or good listeners, and they all can certainly still purchase my dinner! (On the flip side, people [such as myself] who have consistently excellent grammar can also still be hilarious, kind, sensitive, and good listeners! But I’d rather not purchase your dinner, so don’t ask.)

3. Don’t speak directly to the reader; he will find it jarring and intrusive.
And if you, the proverbial reader, don’t actually exist? Well, more for me I guess (though I’m not really sure what that means).

4. Don’t overuse adjectives. One or two will suffice.
Anyway, because of my brilliant, clever, witty, humorous e-mail, I decided . . .

5. Don’t use scare quotes. They are rarely, if ever, necessary.
Oh wait, that last is just a lingering memory of a funny Super Bowl commercial about “flowers in a box.”

6. Cite your sources, avoiding the Internet where possible.
According to Cyril Connolly (whoever the hell that is – we all know I got the quote off some such pedantic, I-need-to-look-smart-without-having-to-do-much-work Web site like writingquotes.com or something), “Better to write for yourself and have no public than to write for the public and have no self.”

7. Don’t overdo it with the analogies, metaphors, similes, or allusions. And don’t mix your metaphors.
Two days ago the thoughts were all silvery and slick, swirling around in my head, waiting to be plucked out with a pensieve. And today? The thoughts are on vacation.

8. Do not use a hyphen in place of an em dash.
However, our training teaches us not to squash their dreams in the editing phase – that’s for the marketing reps to do!

9. Do not refer to future or past points in your book; if it’s in a previous chapter, they’ll know it’s there because they’ll have read it already; if it’s coming up, they’ll get to it.
I choose my friends based on factors like connection and chemistry, not whether they know the difference between when to use its and when to use it’s (more on this later, though).

So there you have it. I’m one of the world’s worst violators of sacred writing rules. Blame Jim Wilcox for giving me a huge ego. Blame also Pam Bracken, another of my college English professors, who commended me for speaking directly to the reader in a formal paper in one of her classes. She even said, “Normally I hate this, but you do it so well, and your style is so conversational that I couldn’t help but be drawn in.” And I got full credit on that paper.

It’s definitely time to sign off. I know this post wasn’t awesome. For that reason I’ll leave you with this. I have a collection of real sentences from books we have published or are publishing. Most of the sentences in this collection are outrageous or just poorly written. They are all worth second reads. Every now and then I’ll share some with you. Here’s one of them:

Our historical neglect of doctrine has produced untold congregations of spiritual retards.

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