April 22, 2013 by jcfarnham
I’ve always been of the opinion that nothing is off limits in writing… if done well and for all the right reasons. There are times things work and times they don’t, simple right? For someone peddling “advice” to swear blind that I’m not allowed to do a certain thing, to me, smacks of idiocy.
What if the very thing that would complete a project of mine is foreshadowing in a dream sequence? There a people out there who would tell you to cut it, no matter what, get rid of it, because dreams are over done. Let’s be honest, they’re not wrong, are they? Then again anything done badly is painful to read or watch. So don’t feel it’s always off limits. It’s not.
Rather, it shouldn’t be.
Perhaps other more common examples of this are:
- “Avoid using said” or conversely “Use only said”.
- “Avoid all forms of to be where possible because it’s weak”
Just because it’s gone wrong a significant number of times, doesn’t mean all writers hence-forth should ignore that tool.
To be is a vital verb in our language. With out it, sentences fall apart, or worse a writer is reduced to grammatical gymnastics to make it work. Anyone who tells you otherwise is fooling themselves. It is true however that overuse of was and it’s fellows can become a little passive. Why “she was doing”, when “she did” is more immediately concise in that tense?
[Pay special attention to that last sentence. Why, indeed. What if the intention of the text is to be the exact opposite of immediate?]
I’m not even going to open the can of worms that is said*
The fact is this: If something appears in the English language it can be considered a legitimate tool, ie., fair game for you to use to get your point across.
Don’t be guilted into believing advice-givers who talk in absolutes when it comes to “the rules of writing.” (They’re guidelines, always have been.) Often** they’ll be talking in generalisations as well. Instead of “saying it can work, but often doesn’t, so pay attention and learn the hows of the matter”, they say “don’t do it”.
I’ve heard this tendancy explained that it’s somehow better to give beginners something to hold onto, to make their writing immediately brilliant, so they can learn the tricks of the trade on their own, when they’re ready.
Back in school, my science teacher would come back at the start of each year and say “everything I’ve taught you thus far are lies.” Case in point: When he introduced quantum mechanics.
I would much rather teach a beginner the correct way to use a tool in the first place than lying to them and run the risk of birthing a new generation of people who only think they know what’s going on.
After all, if you’re diving deep in to the word mines*** you’ll need all the tools you can to hit that vein of gems you seek. 1) Know what you’re doing, and do it well. 2) Don’t be afraid to use a certain tool when it would be perfect for the job.
In other words, don’t go poking at rock with a tooth pick because you’re scared of the pick axe or the dynamite.
*I’m more than content to wave the can around though, as I’m sure all you writers reading this have wrestled with that particular subject time and time again.
** Often, not always. There are people out there like Brain W Foster, who are masters of their tools. And while they’ll talk of rules and absolutes, they know what they’re talking about. We all need to learn when someone is spouting rubbish, and when they actually know what they’re talking about.
*** Thanks go to Marshall Ryan Maresca for the word mine metaphor.