As You Like It: Rules for Writing

Back in February 2010, the Guardian posted an article titled “Ten rules for writing fiction.” Celebrated authors had been invited to submit ten of their writing rules. But rules often break down under pressure, we might find writers breaking their own, or the examples held up for adulation contain so many exceptions that the rule is nullified early in the game. Take Jonathan Franzen’s rule regarding using then as a conjunction, for example.

Franzen gets pretty worked up about it. Over at the FS&G “Work in Progress” blog, he expounds on his “Comma-Then” rule. Basically, Franzen frowns on the use of then to connect, particularly when the intent is to avoid using and. Fine, I thought, but unmoved, as usual, by this kind of nitpicking, then thought to check his examples.

Franzen explains why he dislikes “comma-then,” and cites Dickens and the Brontes in support. Is it a rule? Should it be? The OED gives this example of the use of then as a conjunction: “The president spoke and spoke well, then sat down. The OED example would appear to violate Franzen’s rule. But Franzen didn’t say the “comma-then” construction was ungrammatical. His argument is stylistic and idiosyncratic. But he cited Dickens and the Brontes as examples of writers who avoided “comma-then.” So l took a look at some Dickens and two of the Brontes, but what I found does not seem to support Franzen’s argument:

From Dickens’s “David Copperfield”:

“Uriah threw the ball to Mrs. Heep, Mrs. Heep caught it and threw it back to Uriah, Uriah kept it up a little while, then sent it back to Mrs. Heep, and so they went on tossing it about until I had no idea who had got it, and was quite bewildered.”

“But I looked so serious, that Dora left off shaking her curls, and laid her trembling little hand upon my shoulder, and first looked scared and anxious, then began to cry.”

From Dickens’s “Bleak House”:

“Jo searches the floor for some time longer, then looks up for a moment, and then down again.”

“My Lady turns her head inward for the moment, then looks out again as before.”

From Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”:

“I listened doubtingly an instant; detected the disturber, then turned and dozed, and dreamt again.”

“Pausing in her lamentations, she surveyed him with a glance of awe and horror, then burst forth anew.”

“He took the book from his hand, and glanced at the open page, then returned it without any observation.”

“He laid them on the table, looked eagerly towards the window, then rose and went out.”

From Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”:

“I walked to the window, across the room, then close up to her.”

“I stood and warmed my numbed fingers over the blaze, then I looked round.”

“Half-an-hour’s recreation succeeded, then study; then the glass of water and the piece of oat-cake, prayers, and bed.”

“He scrutinised the reverse of these living medals some five minutes, then pronounced sentence.”

Not all of the rules in the Guardian article mentioned above are about the mechanics of writing. Some of the rules are about the behavior of the writer, rules to improve productivity or efficiency. The Guardian list opens with Elmore Leonard, whose first rule speaks to writing strategy: Don’t open with the weather, Leonard says. But that’s exactly how Jonathan Franzen begins his novel, “The Corrections,” his first paragraph reminding me of the opening to Dickens’s “Bleak House,” bad weather and sentence fragments. Dickens opens with “Implacable November weather…Fog everywhere,” Franzen with “an autumn prairie cold front…Gust after gust of disorder.”

Implacable, too, the rules of writing. Speaking of fog, rules for writing often fog the glasses of our desire, streak the windows of our prose, our fingers go blind, then despondency.

The Seven Ages of the Writer Amid Rules

Maybe the rules of writing are like Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, found in the play “As You Like It.” In the first stage (of a modified Shakespeare, the seven ages of the writer), the writer is an infant, and there are no rules. In the second stage, the infant grows into grammar school, fidgeting against the rules. The third stage, he’s in love with the rules, whatever he determines them to be. Then a soldier of rules, the professor, or the professional writer looking for an easy gig between novels. Then wisdom sets in for a spell. Then his time passes, and a new generation of writers watches him slip on the banana peels of his rules. And in the end, “mere oblivion” is the rule, “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

5 thoughts on “As You Like It: Rules for Writing

  1. “Poetic license” once explained rule-breaking, but poetic license in a world of convention chaos is an expired bus pass.

    When Franzen says, “Here’s what actual English speakers would say,” I wonder if convention chaos isn’t a good thing, for a single convention (Franzen says, “No native speaker would utter any of the sentences above…”) suggests everyone talks alike. Which isn’t true, or is this changing?

    From Mark Twain’s note at the front of Huck Finn: “I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.”

    But maybe Franzen does have a good ear, and he’s heard that native speakers are homogenizing their speech, a result of a convention conspiracy started with television. Are local flavors being supplanted by a kind of global corporatized lingo taste?

  2. My first reaction , I guess , is to suggest that rules are made to be broken , then ……………
    Being married to a Polish woman , I see how English rules are both broken to make interesting new phrases , and used correctly to make interesting new phrases , since Americans would never use the words in such a way . Maybe language cannot be corralled so neatly as to impose such confining rules ?

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