The Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing, Part Six

As a student of the art of fiction, there are several axioms and pieces of advice that I come across again and again; "show, don't tell", "write what you know", "don't trick the reader", etc. These aren't items from a single book, they're everywhere. Some of them surely originate with specific authors, but as ideas they've taken on a life of their own, becoming more than something one person said.

In this series, I will try to gather all those admonitions, encouragements, and adages into a single, definitive list; the Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing. Hopefully this will be as fun and educational for you as it is for me.


Commandment Six: Words are sacred, thou shalt not abuse them

We've already touched on this, but it's one of the most important things to realize when you become a writer: Words are powerful. Like anything powerful, they must be wielded responsibly.

Take a moment and try to imagine the world before written language. Try to imagine how much harder everything would be. These days, our thoughts exist almost exclusively in written language, much to the chagrin of previous generations. We text and email more than we talk. We post on Facebook instead of calling to catch up with friends. (Some people bemoan this state of affairs. I, on the other hand, am a huge fan of it, for reasons I won't go into now)

Try to imagine your typical day without writing. I'll give you a hint: it's impossible. You can't even wake up on time, because there's no such thing as numerals to put on a clock. You can't order breakfast off a drive-through menu. You can't do any work, because there are no computers, and no books from which to learn skills.

Writing is the foundation of all knowledge. It is the beginning of progress. (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!) Speech predates writing, possibly by millennia, but without the ability to transmit ideas beyond one's immediate space and time, progress was effectively nonexistent. The ability to cast ideas in a lasting medium makes the transmission and growth of knowledge possible.

Even when we write to entertain, we wield this awesome power. Anything that blasphemes against or abuses the power of words is at odds with the choice to write. If you deny the power of written words, why on Earth would you want to be a writer?

So what does this mean in practical terms? On the most basic level, it means you owe it to yourself and your potential readers to learn everything you can about words. Learn your parts of speech. Learn grammar. Learn linguistics, if you can. LEARN. Don't assume that just because you write a mean memo, or occasionally say something eloquent over cocktails, you know everything you need to know about words. You can never know too much.

One of the most overlooked crimes against words is the careless use of punctuation. Don't get me wrong, nobody is perfect, least of all myself. But readers can tell the difference between a small misstep like an unnecessary comma and a writer who just doesn't care. Punctuation marks are the accessories that ornament your words. They are the boundaries that divide them. Their use or misuse supplies meaning and subtlety. At least try to use them right.

Part of the reason I feel entitled to speak as forcefully as I do is because I'm guilty of every crime I condemn. When I started out as a writer, I couldn't tell you the difference between a preposition and a pronoun. I didn't know what a parallelism was. Worst of all, I didn't think I needed to learn these things; I thought I could get by on my innate facilities.

I still have plenty to learn. I'm still a little shaky on semicolons; I tend to use them when I probably shouldn't. But learning is a part of my regular routine now, and my knowledge base is always expanding.

Another part of revering words is not using them cavalierly. Purple prose is among the worst crimes an author can commit, because it saps words of their power.

If you are alive in the twenty-first century, you probably come across words that have lost their meaning every day. "Free" doesn't mean what it used to. Neither do words like "vintage", "sale", or "literally".

How about profanity? When you were little, the word "fuck" probably seemed like the gravest transgression you could ever commit. Unless you're a sheltered little lamb who doesn't use the internet, you probably don't even bat an eye at the word "fuck" anymore. I sure as shit don't. I fucking use it all day long.

Or how about exaggeration? Was that really the best hamburger you've ever eaten? Did that slice of cheesecake really change your life? Of course not. In speech, these kind of exaggerations are acceptable, because they disappear the moment they're spoken, or at least the moment they're forgotten by whoever hears them. And if they're being used for comic effect, exaggerations are fine in speech or writing. Megadeth's new album didn't literally shred my face off, but it's amusing to talk that way about heavy metal.

Purple prose is what happens when writers strain for effect. It's what happens when writers become too self-assured, too impressed with their ability to wield complex words. Words may not cost you anything to use, but when you write overwrought, flowery sentences like "The sun hid behind ivory clouds that gave its light the texture of a rippled curtain draped over the infinite window of the sky" when you could have said "It was cloudy", you harm those words. Every unnecessary over-extension is another step in a word's gradual descent into meaninglessness.

You might get away with disrespecting words. People do. But you can't expect to. And even though you can, that doesn't mean you should.