Them’s the rules: or are they?

unknownRecently I have been attending an enjoyable novel-writing group here in Cheltenham. No-one in the group is a beginner, except me, but everyone is looking for rules. I like rules, too, but I’m perhaps a bit more resistant to them, having had rules drummed into me during my years in journalism.

This week I mentioned Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, which were a few ideas Leonard scribbled down before cunningly turning them into a (short) book. The 10 rules are for fiction writers. Here they are, reduced to their original form with no book wrapped around them.

  1. Never open a book with the weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control!
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois,  sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Same for places and things.
  10. Leave out the parts readers tend to skip.

(This is probably a big copyright infringement, but I’ll take it down if Mr Leonard’s publisher object.)

Anyway, lots of people swear by them. But for what it’s worth, here’s Morrish’s gloss on Leonard’s rules.

  1. Weather: why not? Many wonderful books open with the weather. It tells the reader approximately where they are, when they are, what time it is. More importantly, it sets the mood of the book and plays off against the mood of the characters, either reinforcing or contrasting. There’s nothing wrong with starting with the weather.
  2. Prologues: why not? They can quickly provide a lot of background, leaving you to charge ahead with your first chapter proper. Or, they can do that clever thing of letting you believe you’re starting in once place when the book is really about somewhere else. It’s a bait-and-switch move, and it can be rather appealing.
  3. Verbs other than said: why not? This is a piece of journalistic dogma, really. You don’t want to read “Sgt Jones opined” in a police report. But readers have no objection to “he replied”, “she laughed”, “I asked”, etc. Personally, I like them. They condense and intensify, and that’s good. “‘I promise I will always tell the truth,’ she lied.” Or “‘I promise I will always tell the truth,’ she said, but she was lying.” I know which I prefer.
  4. Adverbs qualifying said: why not? I refer you to the classics. They are everywhere in Eliot, Austen, Dickens, James, Joyce. Again, the prohibition is journalistic. Not everyone is writing news stories.
  5. Exclamation points [marks]. Well, this is a reasonable point, if your characters are newspaper-trained or grammar-schooled, or you are writing a historical novel based, say, 10 years ago. Today exclamation marks are ubiquitous. Your readers will use them. Your characters should use them. We’re in the age of the emoji, for crying out loud.
  6. ‘Suddenly’ and ‘All hell broke loose’. I agree with this, but only because they are such awful clichés.
  7. Regional dialect and patois? Very difficult to do well, but why should all your characters sound like, say, Elmore Leonard? Writing in any sort of patois or dialect is extremely difficult, but without it we would have no Irvine Welch and certainly no Marlon James. Neither of those writers is easy. But even writers of delightful, light-weight prose are using a type of dialect. Right Ho, Jeeves is in dialect. Bridget Jones’s Diaries are in dialect.
  8. Descriptions of characters. I tend to agree, but that’s just my taste. Some readers very much demand them.
  9. Descriptions of places and things. Ditto.
  10. Leave out the parts readers tend to skip. Good advice, if you’re clairvoyant. Short of standing over a select audience of prospective readers and watching what they do, how would you ever know? I guarantee that when you are reading you will skip a different part to me.

Leonard had one other rule that didn’t make the Top 10. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” I think that makes perfect sense for him. Indeed, all the rules make perfect sense for Elmore Leonard. If you want to be a writer of hard-boiled, comic, crime-caper novels then by all means follow them. And why not? His books are brilliant, and have adapted easily into movies.

The last thing I want, though, is to sound like Elmore Leonard. The world already has one. It doesn’t need another.


News in the age of clickbait

aaeaaqaaaaaaaak-aaaajdhkzdq4ytvjlwzjnmqtngiwzc05m2nkltg4mgrlzja1yzexzgA few days ago I found myself boasting that I could teach the essence of journalism in half a day. Rash, but there is a grain of truth in it.
It’s all about news. Even features and interviews have a sort of news value, depending on how you define news, which is the tricky bit. You could emphasise relevance, or the uncovering of secrets, or the reversal of expectations: the man who bites the dog is still with us. (Literally so: I have seen such stories several times.)

My favoured definition of news, though, comes from Arthur Christiansen, editor of the Daily Express in the 30s, 40s and 50s, when it was a massively successful broadsheet newspaper (on the right). He said simply that “News is anything out of the ordinary”.

That seems to me a useful nostrum in any form of journalism. A printed publication seeks out those unexpected things in its news pages and its features, and it is designed so as to give them due prominence. It is a device for steering readers’ attention and directing them to what the editor considers most important; and that is often the most surprising thing.

How does this relate to the present day, when printed publications are struggling and turning to the internet in hope of salvation? Web newspapers and magazines started out as online replicas of their parent newspapers, with complex layouts designed to lead their readers from point to point in the same way they were led by the print pages. At that time would-be web designers were told to avoid scrolling at all costs.

Now, thanks to smartphones and tablets, everyone scrolls. With a flick of finger or thumb, you rush through story after story until you find something you are interested in. The old idea of steering your attention by story prominence and shape is gone: instead you find your favoured content by picture and headline. And in both cases what you want is Anything Out Of The Ordinary.

Consider “clickbait”, the creation of absurd headlines and eye-catching pictures designed to gather hits, which is to say clicks. Clickbait does a job, and it’s the news ethos boiled down to its essentials. It’s the way online journalism gets readers, in the same way a big headline above the fold, or a familiar face staring into the camera, works for printed newspapers and magazines. It’s only a bad thing if the content at the end of the link is disappointing or dishonest, and sooner or later that will backfire on the clickbait publisher. The same goes for dull material deliberately generated for clickbait purposes, which seems to be the policy of the online operations of some of our local paper publishers.

Here in Gloucestershire, we are regularly regaled with tales of giant chips, discarded McDonalds meals, and police cars driving quickly without arriving anywhere interesting. But we don’t have it all our own way. To close, here’s an example from the website of the Evesham Journal: a tiny
newspaper story given a whole page online and decorated with an irrelevant stock picture of a police car. Follow the link to the page and feel free to jeer: they’ll be delighted. Clickbait at its silliest.

Wishing well

Unlike most people, I rather like spam. I don’t remember acting upon any of it;  I have acquired no Russian spouses, nor African benefactors, nor enhanced body parts. But I do like to spot trends in the way spam is written, dig out unusual words, and ponder the ways in which it differs from legitimate business communications.

I am not talking about the crude sexual come-ons that use various typographical tricks to by-pass the internet providers’ spam filters and slip into the junk box on my computer. (I only get it from my gmail account, incidentally. I wonder why.) I’m really talking about spam that presents itself as cold-calling business email. Of course, untargeted business mail is exactly that; it’s a fine distinction.

Such emails make various attempts at creating a friendly, approachable tone of voice (the default mode of the Internet), while also appearing businesslike. There may be a bogus invoice number or similar call-to-action attached.

Anyway, I have recently observed an odd thing: the number of times complete strangers, or imaginary people, open the correspondence like this: “Hope you are well.” Clearly, this is an instance of business writing imitating the way friends begin emails to each other.

In that context, it’s perfectly natural and pleasant. It’s not new, either. The Romans greeted each other in the street like this: Salve, meaning “Be well”. In writing they used salutem, meaning “greetings” or “good health”. You might argue that the reason it is so common now is simply fashion: we like to respond in kind to the language we receive. Or perhaps it is symptomatic of some deeper anxiety in society about health, one of the few things we fear we can do nothing about.

The point, though, is context. “Hope you are well,” is fine among friends. It’s OK with genuine business contacts: people whose names you know, people who have voluntarily made contact with you, people with whom you already have a relationship. It is less so with strangers, especially the older generation, and to them it may appear impertinent, over-familiar, and plain cheeky.

As always, the secret of successful communication is knowing your audience. That takes a bit of thought and an acute awareness of the tone of voice projected by your writing. It is worth it.


Jargon we like, and jargon we hate

It is standard advice for any kind of writer to avoid jargon. It’s ugly, it excludes, it baffles as much as it communicates. And yet, people love it.

When training people in writing, I have had few delegates protest when I have suggested they remove the more nonsensical examples of jargon, particularly business jargon, from their work. I’m thinking of the ill-defined claims of so many companies that they offer “solutions”, or that they are “leveraging” something or other, possibly a “vertical”. I would advise my trainees to be concrete, be specific, and most people would go along with it.

It is not, though, as simple as all that. We hate jargon, except when we are using it ourselves, and then we find it indispensable as a shorthand and a way making ourselves feel part of a team. In that case we would be using our professional or specialist language – and we would be right to use it. No-one expects brain surgeons to use the same work vocabulary as nuclear physicists.

Jargon really means specialist language we dislike; it’s a pejorative term rather than a descriptive one. Originally the word meant the twittering and tweeting of birds. Human beings didn’t understand it, and they didn’t like it: it is easy to see how this transferred to the incomprehensible jabberings of other people. Foreign languages were often referred to as jargon, although they are not, of course. They are perfectly clear to those who speak and understand them.

The key thing, really, is to be aware of your audience. That is always the first principle in writing – who is this for? – and it starts with the language you use. By all means use the technical terms of your business or profession when you are writing for readers within the same world: but if you are writing for outsiders, you need to think about how they will receive it. Will they be baffled? Will they feel excluded? Will they dismiss what you have to say because of the thoughtless way you have chosen to express it?

So I would say this: when you are writing for your customers or the general reader, take out the jargon, except where you are sure they will understand and accept it. Be particularly rigorous about buzzwords and management clichés, which provoke a cynical response.

That said, not everything can be expressed in standard English. Other people’s technical terms and occupational slang can be pungent and authentic, and we love them when we encounter them in fiction or drama. Would The Wire, often acclaimed as the best-ever television drama series, have been the same without its relentless use of US Police jargon?