I once had a client tell me she’d heard that sentences should never run more than fifteen words. To this day I have no idea where that rule came from, though it was probably from someone who either had a short attention span or had read way too much Henry James.
The rule is nonsense, of course. It wound up making all her characters seem like they had short attention spans. But it shows one of the dangers with trying to write by the rules – you wind up limiting your characters or story so you can color within the lines. Sure, more sophisticated rule-givers (George Orwell, for instance) try to get around this danger by giving you the rules on when to break the rules, and maybe even rules on when to break those. My head usually starts to hurt by that point.
Are there guidelines that can help you shape your writing? Sure. I co-authored a book full of them. And I recommend that you learn as much about them as you can. The danger lies in treating these guidelines as rules. It’s much more accurate – and safer – to think of them as tools.
Rules are made to be obeyed. Tools are made to do specific tasks. They’ll do one thing well, and another not so much. Once you know what various tools can and can’t do – what’s in your toolbox – you can pick the right tool for the job. (Full disclosure: I‘m saying this as someone who has, on occasion, used a socket wrench as a hammer.) [Read more…]