50 Shades of Writing Style

“Murder your darlings” is a catch cry of the writing fraternity, painted on placards and waved around as if it were a protest rally cry.

What do we want? Destruction of adverbs.

When do we want it? Immediately.

It is touted as one of the foremost rules of writing. But what does it REALLY mean?

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, in 1916, said, “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”

I’m calling shenanigans. I’m calling it an old fashioned dictum that needs to be questioned.

Writers are fond of dispensing advice. I’ve just finished ready Stephen King’s memoir/instruction manual On Writing, and he’s not short of dishing out advice either, including the above mentioned idea of excising all adverbs.

The interweb is full of pithy statements by known authors, which could be distilled into a handy gospel of “Thou shalt…” and “Thou shalt not…”

But have we actually asked the question of “Why?” Why dispense with all adverbs? Why excise long descriptions? Why should we write with the idea that there needs to be a pause for the reader to put down the book so they can void their bladder?

The “rules of writing” is actually a combination of cultural and aesthetic preferences. Cultural and aesthetic taste is reflected in its art, music and media. And it changes. Tastes change in all types of culture, writing not the least of them. The rules about writing are arbitrary and they, too, will change.

Art and culture are the revolutionaries, the questioners, the pragmatists of a society. They push forward, restrain, challenge a culture.

For writers, the question of HOW we do it is the focus of all the writing dictum and rules. Only writers care about “good” writing (as we should, but does the reader care about good writing? I posit they care more about the story).

We decry the shabby writing of “Twilight” and “50 Shades of Grey” and rightly so. Bad writing is bad writing and will always be present like the foul smell emanating from a teenage boy’s bedroom. Is there, perhaps, a twinge of jealousy at the success of a story badly told?

Think about music, where lists of the “Worst Pop Songs of All Time” appear from time to time. We may hate them if we are a musician for their cliched style or gimmick. If you’re a non-musician, maybe it’s a “guilty pleasure” knowing it’s not highbrow but enjoying it nonetheless.

But most important of all is story.

HOW that story is expressed is the choice of the author.

The expression of our ideas through story demands a style. For some writers, they prefer clean, simple prose. Others prefer lengthier descriptions, philosophical concepts, arcane language and paragraphs of prose postulating on the placement of condiments on the breakfast table and its significance to the character’s sense of self and power.

Consider why texts are considered “classics?” Is it the language, the ideas, the characters or a combination of all? Where would the “classics” fit into the scheme of things if they were presented today? The languid, turgid prose of the Brontes and Austens would surely be decried as overdone, but they are still read and republished, as is Shakespeare.

There should be “high” and “low” art, but not to create a divide; it should be recognised as a continuum. No one art form is superior to another; it is simply an expression. Some artists will want to go deeper and use a form where it is permissible. Others will prefer a more consumer-orientated form.

It’s a grey area between low and high art, and I would argue that writers should protect and champion language.

Before we dismiss a writer’s prose (whether it conforms to preconceived “rules” about writing or challenges them), we should listen to how the writer speaks in their work. We need to listen to their voice. It is as important to listen to the voice of the writer as it is to listen to what they have to say.

Are we listening?

6 responses to “50 Shades of Writing Style

  1. As the good Captain Barbossa says, they’re not such much rules, more…guidelines. 😉

    Seriously, I like to think of it more as use what’s available to tell the story in the best way. Sure, I hate unnecessary adverbs (e.g. “He shouted loudly.” How else do you shout?) but every now and then, they’re the only way to communicate what you mean properly.

    So read the advice, and use what works for you, and simply take the rest under advisement.

    • Parely? I want to be Captain Barbossa.
      I get where you’re coming from. Unnecessary repetition is poor, but communicate the best way you know how.

  2. If we all followed all the same “rules” exactly, I think we would all end up sounding pretty much the same. How boring would that be?

    And, as you pointed out, some of those “rules” [see, I just have to put that word in quotes] were formed when our language and culture were very different from what they are today. We have to challenge them, bend them, break them, obliterate them occasionally, Perhaps the “rules” are the real darlings that need to be murdered.

  3. Murder the rules! Although, keep some grammatical rules because otherwise it will all turn to shit ;).
    When I find myself trying to turn a sentence on its head to avoid an adverb, I put the adverb in. Otherwise I end up with long boring sentences, and I imagine a reader would sit there thinking “why didn’t she just write ‘softly’?” There’s such a thing as overthinking something. It’s funny we’ve both picked up on this particular bugbear this week!

  4. Style is one of those things as an editor you have to be so careful of, to understand and get your head into and around the nuances of the voice and stylistic qualities of the writing you have before you, so you don’t bleed if dry of what it unique to that authors way of expressing a narrative. I don’t say I always get it right, but I always respect an author who stands up for their work work when the style has undermined in a way they’re not happy with.

    And I concur with Stacey and Icy… there’s always a place for a thoughtfully and well used adverb. That’s what makes them great and why overuse dilutes their power.

    With any set of ‘rules’ some to speak to you, others don’t. Take a little from column A, mix it with a little column B and create your own special blend in Column C. My big bug bear is the stylistic back lash against ‘first person POV’ because it’s not ‘proper writing’. Who says?

    For every rule you abide by and see it strengthen your writing, break two others!

  5. I don’t think it’s possible to avoid qualitative assessments, even entirely irrational ones, of bodies of work. Even the person who says high and low lit aren’t better than each other makes an implicit vote that 50 Shades of Grey is better than Don Quixote when she chooses to read one rather than the other. In this case, at the very least, it’s being judged as a superior satisfier for her desires. Just as I tend to avoid smut in favor of the classics as I generally desire more depth to the text. “More” and “superior” quickly become related language. But I do think it would be a nicer world if people were preoccupied by engaging with what satisfied them, rather than battling others over the ranking of it.

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