1. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    VS Naipul's Advice for Writers

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by arron89, Apr 25, 2011.

    I know the last thing the world needs is another list of advice for authors-to-be, but there's some really good advice here, and this is, after all, a writing workshop. So...

    VS Naipaul’s Rules for Beginners

    1. Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words.

    2. Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.

    3. Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.

    4. Never use words whose meaning you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.

    5. The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of colour, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.

    6. Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.

    7. Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; short, clear, concrete sentences. It may be awkward, but it’s training you in the use of language. It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university. You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.


    I don't really agree with the first rule (and Naipul himself breaks it in the third rule), but besides that, I think this is a pretty great list. Especially #5. I think one of the easiest ways a lot of amateur work (and probably a lot of published work) could be improved is just by scrapping every adjective.

    And on reading it again, I feel like this advice works even better for poetry than prose, rules 3-6 in particular. Just really simple, obvious advice that is bound to improve almost any work it is applied to (which is why I like this more than a lot of similar lists).

    Anyway, since this is a discussion forum....thoughts?
     
  2. Ice Queen
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    Ice Queen Senior Member

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    I only agree with #4.

    I think it's silly to try and force yourself to limit the number of words used in a sentence- contrasts of short and long sentences can draw attention to certain parts of the writing. Also, if you make your sentences uniform length, it will take the flow out of it and might make the pace feel a bit boring.

    There are other things to think about besides making an outright statement. I mean, reflection, metaphor, surely some surprises are important. I mean, forgive me if I don't understand what is meant but I am imagining something like: 'John went for a walk in the grass. The grass was long and moths fluttered through it. The moths were white and flicked powder from their wings...etc'

    Using long words is fine, geez. There's a reason why language is so versatile: use them, only don't OVERUSE them, go for variety.
    I'm not sure why anyone should avoid using adjectives...

    Abstraction is something I enjoy because it provokes thought and reflection and can maybe be more interesting or fun than just handing the reader something in concrete form.

    And lastly, I think most writers have their own style and I would never advocate trying to get everyone to write the same. Besides that, University is a great place to develop your writing in your own way, especially if you're doing an English Lit course or a Language course.

    Sorry but I don't agree with most of this, it seems to encourage uniformity and a too technical form of writing, but that's just my opinion- for me writing is an Art, it's all about self-expression. Why limit yourself in this way?
     
  3. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I agree with you about the first rule, long sentences definitely have a place in fiction. And I don't think the second rule necessarily excludes metaphors and other literary devices; metaphors are still clear statements. I think what he's getting at is that the idea behind a sentence, what you are trying to say, should be clear. There's obviously room for interpretation in fiction, but your sentences should always produce something definite for the reader. Rule three is probably the least important rule on the list, but it's still generally a good idea. Writing is supposed to be accessible, and chances are that if you're overusing long words when small ones could do, you're putting up a barrier between you and your reader. His advice about abstraction is basically "show, don't tell" in a less obvious and much more meaningful way. I'm not sure how you're interpreting abstraction in your reply, but 'concrete' writing can also provoke thought and reflection...and if you can't imagine why adjectives should be avoided by beginner writers, head to the review rooms on the forum for a while and you'll understand.

    Obviously all writers have their own style, and I don't see anything in this list that would limit expression...you're still free to do virtually anything, and if you follow this advice you'll avoid some very common mistakes...at least that's what I think.
     
  4. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I like #4 and #6. Don't really have much use for the rest of them.
     
  5. Dark Dyer
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    Dark Dyer Member

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    Well, as the list states, these are rules for beginners. Believe me, I would have loved this advice when I first started writing.

    As for Rule #1, I disagree as well. It really makes writing choppy when you have to edit each sentence as you write it to make sure you don't go past some silly word limit. My previous sentence proves my opinion on that.

    Rule #2 is great! It's so easy to just start rambling on about things that don't mix well with the paragraph. Making sure that you group sentences into paragraphs makes the story more cohesive and not just a random combination of sentences.

    Number 3 is not a good one: Large words flavor the text. I would hate to have to be restrained by some word length limit.

    Number 4 speaks for itself. Obvious rule.

    As for rules 5 and 6, oh how I wish I had been taught these rules when I first started writing! I have a horrid tendency to just keep on laying on the abstract like there's no tomorrow, and my readers can't figure out what's real and what is just some odd thought springing from my mind. I also use too many adverbs and adjectives. Some are fine and dandy, but too many becomes useless fluff. Learn to edit them out and have the story give the details. I had to break the habit. It's much easier to tell the story than to stop it and drone on about the length and color of the main heroine's hair.

    Great rules for the most part, and as the OP said: These are for beginners. So for all the experts out there, you do your own thing. My English teacher always told me to do it her way for now, and I can break that rule of starting a sentence with a conjunction when I graduate.
     
  6. Show
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    Number 4 has it's merits, and maybe 6 to a point, but the rest of these are junk. Beginner or pro, bad advice is bad advice. And this? This sounds like a big glop of bad advice.
     
  7. Banzai
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    Banzai One-time Mod, but on the road to recovery Contributor

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    Hmmm. Interesting stuff.

    I'm undecided about rule 1. On the one hand, imposing an arbitrary limit on the number of words in a sentence strikes me as stupid. But on the other, I can see it as a break on overcomplexed sentences, which are more common about new writers. I personally favour varying sentence lengths, particularly as sentence length is a great method of pace-setting.

    Rule 2 I agree with absolutely.

    Rule 3 - again, I like the underlying idea, but I think it would be better to phrase it as use the correct word, rather than fussing over whether a word is short enough. Though I do agree that a writer should always try to convey an idea in the simplist and most concise way they can.

    Rule 4 is a given. Or rather it should be. I see it broken too many times- how hard is it to use a dictionary?

    Rule 5 I think I agree with too. Again, I'd probably rephrase it slightly as "use as few adverbs as necessary".

    Rule 6 I also agree with.

    And as for rule 7, writing frequently is certainly the only way you're really going to improve. Too many people seem to wander into writing expecting that they'll just be able to pick up a pen/open a word document and knock out a perfect, bestselling novel, without having to work to learn and improve their craft.

    On the whole, not a bad set of rules. Better than many I've seen, really.
     
  8. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I think these rules are for the very beginnerest of beginners. It almost seems like, once you read the list of rules, you aren't a beginner anymore.

    Rule 1 is simply silly. A writer should use a variety of sentence lengths. Confining oneself to short sentences is a quick way to make the work look like it was written by an imbecile.

    Rule 2 is pretty good. I'll accept that one.

    Rule 3 is another silly one. "The use of short words compels you to think about what you are writing." Huh? The use of long words would also compel you to think about what you are writing. A writer shouldn't be concerned about whether a word is short or not; rather, he should be concerned about whether a word is right or not.

    Rule 4 is obvious, and a good rule.

    Rule 5 is iffy. Adjectives and adverbs have their places. Maybe beginners tend to overuse them, thinking that adding complexity to a sentence makes them appear smarter, but that goes away quickly, unless you're H.P. Lovecraft.

    Rule 6 is a pretty good rule.

    Rule 7 is for kids.

    So how about this: We keep the even-numbered rules and get rid of the odd-numbered rules. Then we'd have a good list!
     
  9. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    my hands down favorite is #4!

    breaking that rule is the most common 'sin' i have to deal with in working with mentees... and is the reason one of my own rules for writers is:

    'lock up your thesaurus till you don't need one!'
     
  10. Trish
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    Trish I've been deleted.. again Contributor

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    I'm going to follow Minstrel here. Keep the evens and use common sense.
     
  11. Tessie
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    Tessie Contributing Member Contributor

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    #5 is personally the best advice for my writing habits, since I tend to over detail, and I like Banzai's revision. #1 is one I know I'll never follow. The rest seem a bit rigid and tend to give the impression of suppressing a beginner's ideas of writing.
     
  12. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    You say that like it's a bad thing...

    I dunno, writing is interesting like that I guess. Generally, you wouldn't take someone seriously as an artist or musician or dancer unless they'd trained and studied extensively, but a lot of people don't have the same expectation of writers. Beginners tend to think that their way is just as good as a seasoned pro's, it's just different. But in writing, as with anything else, there's different, and then there's wrong, and I think, objectively, that most of the advice in this list is a good way to put beginners on the right track. I mean, you literally only need to go and look at some posts by beginners on our very own forums to see how almost all of these rules could produce positive change.

    Young writers need as much training and teaching as any other artistic professional; advice like this makes sure that rather than reinventing the wheel, new writers at least have a few common sense, time-tested guidelines to follow.
     
  13. Trish
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    Trish I've been deleted.. again Contributor

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    I do see your point, but some things just seem to be common sense if you've read anything. We all make mistakes, but we fix them (or we should). Also, I tend to break a lot of those rules here on the forum, not so much in my writing I don't think. I don't use words that I don't know what they mean. I don't use incredibly long sentences like I sometimes do on posts :p I write everyday anyway. I'm not too terrible with the ly's. Do I slip up? Of course I do, but I'll fix it :)

    EDIT: I DO think that there are wrong ways of going about it, and that sometimes you're not different, you need to start over. Seriously. I'm just saying that some of these should be common sense.
     
  14. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    Naipaul is an obnoxious old bird, so I'm very glad that his advice is terrible since it means I'm not having to agree with him.

    An analogy might be provided. We might say to young footballers:

    i Play only short passes.

    ii Do not attempt to dribble past your opponents.

    iii No tricks or flicks, please.

    iv Always play the way you're facing.

    etc etc

    That sort of advice has been meted out by many English coaches for the last God knows how many years. It stifles natural instincts. It produces competence, not excellence. It renders the playing of the game less fun for the player. It produces games which fail to excite the spectator. And so on.
     
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  15. Show
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    That may be true but at the same time, whenever a seasoned Pro violates one of these rules, the young writer is told not to imitate them cause the seasoned pros are always the exceptions to all the rules. lol

    I don't think we take "trained" musicians any more seriously than anybody else. We want music that sounds good and we don't care how much "training" they have. I think people have even HIGHER expectations of writers. It's a lot harder to impress people with a story than it is to impress them with a catchy tune. Young writer's hardly have it EASIER. If anything, we squash their creative spirit cause the "PROS" think they know it all.

    And I agree, there's different, and there's WRONG! A LOT of this guy's points are just flat out WRONG! These rules are hardly "time tested" and I don't see them helping out beginners. I think the only thing this rule is good for is testing how gullible a writer is. If they give me a bunch of short sentences with short words and short sentences, then I'll know for sure that they are a beginner. :p

    Young writers do need artistic teaching but I think we need to be discriminatory in who we let teach them. Sometimes it feels like we are justifying the blind leading the blind just because the young "need teaching." There ARE things that are "just wrong," and this list is among them. (Throwing in a single common sense solution is just a not-so-clever way of making it seem more intelligent than it actually is.) And sometimes a writer's methods ARE just different. One can't have a mindset where it's always one or the other.
     
  16. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I don't mean to be defensive, but it feels like a lot of these responses are just kinda knee-jerk reaction to the idea of rules, the idea that it is in some way stifling if someone suggests that maybe it's not a good idea to use 5 syllable words and write 40 word sentences when you're starting out.

    So I grabbed a pile of books to see whether or not these rules correspond to the writing styles of successful authors: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, Lust by Elfriede Jelinek, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz and Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut. A pretty broad section of modern fiction, a small sample size but more or less representative of successful writing (all authors being critically lauded, most being best-sellers).

    Slaughterhouse 5 has 6 sentences longer than Naipul suggests on its first page, and only 1 word over 3 syllables (the unshortenable Communism). The writing is extremely straight-forward, concrete, each sentence presenting a single idea, each paragraph united by an overarching theme. So far, besides the sentence length (which I already said was the one rule I didn't agree with), Kurt Vonnegut subscribes to these rules.

    Junot Diaz's writing style, again, tends towards long sentences, but the first page of his novel contains just two words over three syllables. The writing is again stylish but simple, clear, modern. There are few adjectives or adverbs, and I wouldn't describe anything about the writing as abstract.

    American Psycho has a notoriously long opening sentence (119 words, I counted), and his style tends towards long, convoluted sentence structures, but there are no words longer than 3 syllables, the writing is minimalistic and straight-forward, nothing abstract, no adverbs.

    Lust has a few long sentences in its opening page, but not a single word over 3 syllables. The writing, as those who've read Jelinek will know, is very concise, very choppy, no adverbs, a little abstraction but always grounded in concrete ideas.

    Safran Foer's novel also has long sentences, but again, no words over three syllables on its opening page, nothing at all abstract, no unnecessary adjectives or adverbs.

    Ultimately, these rules have very, very little to do with creativity and more to do with the technicality of writing. There's no limit on what you can write about, what characters you can create, what stories you can tell. These rules are simply there to guide you towards telling your story in a way that will appeal to people without making the mistakes that turn many readers off. As my brief survey suggests, these aren't difficult rules to follow, and most good writers probably follow them unconsciously. But as I said, these rules are intended for beginners, in order to put them on a path to maximising their talent and their creativity, not limiting it.

    All writers need to learn, and when a Nobel prize winner gives you advice, it's probably a good idea to pay attention to it, rather than discard it out of hand because 'how dare anyone try to dictate what I can do? *has tantrum*'...
     
  17. Trish
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    Trish I've been deleted.. again Contributor

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    I don't think there shouldn't be rules for writing. There should be, there are, whether or not people choose to acknowledge them. Honestly? Should we listen to the person who won a Nobel prize? Sure, I'm sure he has some great things to say, but there's nothing saying we shouldn't stop screaming about how right we are and listen to the guy who's in the same predicament we are either. He (or she) won't always be right, because no one is, but we've all learned from different teachers, different books, different life experiences. I think the point is that maybe once in a while we should consider someone else's view and see if it works for us. Maybe it won't. Maybe it will, though, and if you don't try you've just missed out on something valuable.
     
  18. Show
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    I have no problem with the idea of rules. That doesn't mean I accept every rule some guy decides is one. One has to be able to distinguish between an actual rule and shock value hogwash.

    Well you just broke a lot of those rules. I think these rules would crush beginners. It makes them pay attention to the wrong things and will only serve to get in the way of learning to be a good writer. I'm sure we could find examples where it worked, just like we could find even more where not doing it worked too.

    All writers do need to learn, but they don't need to adopt every whacko principle some so-called "expert" tells them. And I honestly am not impressed because somebody won an award. Bad rules are bad rules no matter who gives them. I evaluate advice as a reader, not as a reader. And as a reader, this guy's advice stinks. It's not about being resistant to rules. It's about knowing when to put your foot down and realizing you're being jerked around. I say we keep 4 from this guy's list and burn the rest. Don't really care WHO he is. I evaluate the advice and this advice doesn't work, it isn't realistically implementable, and it wouldn't help beginning writers to do anything other than cement the fact that they are gullible beginners who would write using only 5 letters if told to.

    All of these lists of "rules" of people who supposedly know what they are talking about.....
     
  19. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    There really isn't anything on this list that strikes me as a "wacko principle". Most of it is common sense, but common sense that many beginner writers seem to lack nonetheless. My list above, though brief, proves that not only are these rules reasonable, most of them are actually used. As I previously said, if you read the list again, you'll find that it really isn't at all limiting in what you can write about or how you write about it, but will, despite your vehement claims to the contrary, prevent many obvious mistakes. I agree that all advice needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and I'm not saying that every writer needs to adopt these rules or they'll fail. I'm saying that in my experience both in my own writing and reading the writing of others on these forums, most beginners stand to gain a lot by following these simple, easy to follow rules.
     
  20. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I do have a problem with the idea of rules, at least in creative writing. What matters is whether a passage works or not, not whether it follows particular rules. If a passage uses lots of long sentences and long words but works well, leave it alone, don't complain that it breaks some rules. If it doesn't work, then by all means suggest "maybe try using simpler language and shorter sentences", not because of any rule but because that's a change that experience shows can improve problematic passages.
     
  21. Show
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    I disagree that it will prevent many obvious mistakes. I think it will breed them. And I don't really think that your list proves them reasonable as much as "workable."

    You violated a good deal of them in your little post alone.(Long sentences, vivid adjectives, big words... I guess you followed number 2, technically. You got very few sentences so they'd better add to it. ;) Of course, I am not slamming your post. I think you write very well, because your posts aren't confined to these rules.) I think my experiences have proven that these rules would be detrimental to beginners. (With the exception of 4, maybe 6. Most people know to put a sensible rule among their propaganda to make themselves look intelligent.) And if we're going by this forum, it seems even the proponents of these rules aren't exactly following them. If they are so easy to follow, maybe this guy should show us.

    The only way to salvage these rules is to look at them as tips for writing a book for kids. In that case, yeah, probably better to make it as simple as possible. In terms of beginning writers, who he already presumes are college age or above, I think these rules are just shackles. Beginners may have a lot to learn, but this guy is apparently not the right one to teach them. And if they truly are beginners, then they will be done even more harm by these rules because they'll lack the knowledge to really implement them properly.
     
  22. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Rules are just pieces of advice turned into imperatives...and while I agree in principle, I think when it comes to laying the groundwork with beginning writers, these kinds of rules are generally helpful (these rules, specifically). I've never been to review something in the review room and said "Yknow, this story could use more big words" or "I'd love it if the writer started talking about something that had nothing to do with the story". The things these pieces of advice address are the commonest, most frustrating mistakes made by beginning writers, writers who shouldn't be told "do whatever you like, be different" any more than someone who picks up a paintbrush should be told to just paint however they like. Without proper groundwork and practice, you're setting yourself up to fail.
     
  23. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Let's not pretend fiction writing and forum writing are even close to the same thing...

    It seems that despite the fact that if you walked to your bookcase right now and picked a book at random, the author would seem to be following most of these rules, you won't be convinced, so I'll stop trying. Best of luck with your writing.
     
  24. Show
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    No they aren't. Forum writing is even more casual, relying often on shorter sentences, more slang, smaller words, and less detail. Your forum post was extra elegant. And congrats, it was a pretty good read. Nice details like "vehement." That's a strong word. Sad that you don't use such details in your fiction. Forum posts are different than fiction. Fiction is more deep and detailed, not less. (So in other words, if you're saying detail and long sentences are okay on forums but bad in fiction, I am saying that such an idea is backwards.)

    And despite the fact? I went to get a book, and it doesn't follow most of these rules at all. Quite the contrary. Vivd details. Sentences of varying length. Words of varying length. In other words, some good writing. So no, the authors don't follow most of these rules, and I don't think most do. (Assuming they write for an adult audience.) The rules aren't good or widely followed. (if you average more than 5 words a sentence, you got a problem? Guess most bestselling authors got a problem then.) Maybe we can put the even ones to good use. But the odd ones, forget about them.
     
  25. teacherayala
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    Rule #1 makes sense to me. I get trapped in my own sentences sometimes. I should be following the advice I give to my ESL students. Sometimes simple sentences are just better. I think counting the words in the sentences is a bit OCD, though.

    Rule #2 also makes sense to me. It provides organizational coherency. Sometimes my own mind works in such an incoherent way that I am thinking there are links in place but in actuality there are not. Revising for Rule #2 can be a frustrating process for me because it's hard to achieve that level of perfection that I'm looking for. As soon as I change one thing, I feel like I add another that doesn't work.

    Rule 3, in my opinion, is dumb and I really don't get it. Language is beautiful and we should make the most of it as long as we're not coming across as pretentious or using words just to prove that we're smarter than everyone else. I'm not going to freakin' count the letters in my words any more than I'm going to count the words in my sentences.

    Rule 4 makes sense. I was guilty of this just the other day, and I felt like an idiot. Literally, I had even looked it up in the dictionary, but the format on the page had confused my understanding of what definition applied to the word, and what applied to the idiom associated with the word.

    Rule 5, I must confess I don't really understand. Why are adjectives and adverbs the bad guys in writing. This seems contradictory to most creative writing I've read. Also, how does one avoid adjectives and adverbs? I am especially wondering how to bread my habit of using adverbs on tag lines. Do you just not write them at all and assume that from the dialogue people get it? Help me out here. I'm a beginner and ignorant of such things.

    Rule 6 needs some clarification for me. Is it that we need less statements such as Julia felt sad and defeated and more statements such as "The rain clouded the sun from view," to show it? Is that the idea?

    Rule 7 is fine. Practice really makes perfect. I think that's what keeps me going even when I write something that totally bombs.
     

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