I was reminded the other day about all the “rules” people like to quote at us, as writers, of how we should (or more often, should not) be writing. The “should not” is the crucial bit here, because far more often than not, these rules tend to be things not to do. Which is all well and good, but I’ve noticed that rules that ought to be phrased “try to avoid too much…” or “be aware of…” become gospel from on high: THOU SHALT NOT. And the problem always comes when “here’s a suggestion”– especially when it’s specific to a piece being critiqued– becomes preached like it’s universal gospel.
1. Thou shalt not use passive voice. On the whole, this is sensible advice. Passive voice tends to make for weak writing. However, more often than not, I’ve seen the person giving it not know what passive voice actually is. Here’s a hint: it is not when the gerund form of the verb is used (as in “the boys were walking down the street”.) Or anything to do with verb tense or helper verbs. Here’s passive voice in a nutshell: when the object of the action is the subject of the sentence. Take “the boys were walking down the street”. What the subject? The boys. What’s the action? Walking. Who was walking? The boys. The subject is doing the action. Active voice. Passive voice would be, “The street was walked upon by the boys.” Subject? The street. But the action is done by the boys. Got it? Good.
2. Thou shalt not use ‘to be’ in any form. I’ve heard it said that using forms of ‘to be’ is “weak writing”. But you know what’s really weak writing? The kind of convoluted verbal cartwheels I’ve seen people use to avoid a simple “to be” sentence. Sometimes it pays to be concise.
3. Thou shalt not use ‘said’. I’m of the school of thought that ‘said’ is an invisible word. People don’t get caught up in its repetition. True, if you have a two-person conversation, their dialogue should be distinct enough that you don’t need to indicate the speaker at every line. But when you do tag, ‘said’ is nice and innocuous. I’d also rather tack an adverb onto ‘said’ every once in a while instead of having characters chortled, exclaimed, exuded, implied or, god forbid, ejaculated. I do like, when appropriate, asked, answered, whispered, muttered, murmured and shouted. But on the whole, said gets the job done.
4. Thou shalt not use adverbs. Yes, sometimes adverbs can be over done, and using an adverb is used where a stronger verb would do a better job, but adverbs are a useful tool, and they are part of the language for a reason.
Here’s the thing: I’m against any rule that’s spoken of as an absolute, about keeping the tools locked in the box. The words and tools are there, use them.