Art & Design Magazine

The Only Rule of Good Writing

By Cilaw

My Creative Writing Masters course astounds me. Often for very wrong reasons. The other day in class a woman old enough to know better said, absolutely sans irony: “I know we’re not supposed to use adverbs or adjectives but…”

I near enough fell off my chair. Says who? Whatever next? Banish commas? Forbid verbs? Only use proper nouns on the first Tuesday after the full moon? One of my classmates attempted to defend this absurdity by saying that writers shouldn’t use adverbs because you end up with phrases like “shouted loudly.” Which, as justifications go, is not so merely lame but paraplegiac. “Shouted loudly” is terrible because it is a tautology — “shouted” implies “loudly.” The adverb is innocent. Take a phrase such as “the wind blew softly”; the adverb is an essential modifier if the reader is to know how the wind blew, e.g. loudly, softly, ferociously. What is at stake here is not the use of an adverb, but the quality of the writing.

That is the only rule of good writing: pay attention to what you’re putting on the page. Forget rules and learn to write. As Orwell notes:

“If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy… when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.”

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