It is generally good for a laugh to say that a professional writer has no rules. It’s not true, of course, and a number of great writers have made lists of rules which they follow with varying degrees of faithfulness. The lists might be summed up by saying that the One Great Rule of Writing is to communicate clearly. Therein lies the rub, for communication involves much more than conveying data from one brain to another; a laundry list can do that. Writers, especially fiction writers, have a host of associations connected to those data, ranging from subtle or not so subtle implications to the deepest emotions, and conveying those is a real challenge.
Available tools for that deeper and broader communication vary with the language, which partially accounts for the difficulty of translation. English has an especially wide vocabulary and variety of idioms to aid in the task (and to confuse the foreign learner). This is reflected in differences in style and usage from one English speaking country to another, American versus British for instance, and in changes over time; the writing of Hawthorne is strikingly different from Hemingway, or even Twain, though all worked in American English. Quite different products, each well communicated.
I recently ran across an excellent discussion of the uses and abuses of language, specifically referencing political writing, authored by none other than George Orwell, one of the best writers of the 20th century. He includes some egregious examples which may evoke great groans of laughter. A link to his essay is below, but first, his list of rules:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Good rules. Let us pledge to follow them more fully. And here’s that link: