When the writing rules fade away

One of the curious things about writing is the way ‘the rules’ fade away with experience. After a while, writers ‘just know’ how to do things. And good editors know they know.

Wright_Typewriter2That also means that an experienced editor doesn’t tick off an experienced author for what, on the face of it, seems to be a noob mistake. Chances are that the sentence beginning with a conjunction is intentional, or a dialogue tag-as-action has been deliberately added. ‘Fixing’ these things usually destroys the deliberate intent of the author (‘Mr Kerouac, I’ve fixed On The Road for you – you obviously don’t know about paragraph breaks.’)

The ‘rules’ are there for one purpose: to ensure clarity of meaning and quality of result. But they are not the sole arbiter of quality.

Of course that doesn’t mean that beginning authors can just blaze away and make all the mistakes under the sun and think they are emulating Steinbeck or Wodehouse. The reason long-standing authors occasionally write in ‘rule breaking’ is because they have made writing part of their soul – they have total control over their expression in ways that beginning writers do not.

A lot of this reflects the learning curve – and the challenge for any author is getting from ‘noob’ to ‘experienced’. Like any skill, it takes about 10,000 hours or a million words. There are four steps:

  1. Unconscious incompetence –you don’t know what you don’t know. Often, people at this stage (in any field) have an illusory sense of competence – the Dunning-Kruger effect – because they don’t have any idea how poor what they’re doing actually is. I have a funny  feeling that this is where a lot of the stuff self-pubbed on Amazon comes from.
  2. Conscious incompetence – suddenly you realise how much there is to learn. Some people get dissuaded at this point. Others forge ahead.
  3. Conscious competence – you ‘get’ what it’s about, but it takes time and conscious effort to make it all happen. Often, in writing, the result has all the right elements, but feels ‘contrived’.
  4. Unconscious competence – the field has become part of your soul. For writers, this is the end-point of a long journey. And the work, again, flows joyfully – but this time, it’s top notch.

Getting from (1) to (4) is a long road. That’s where NaNoWriMo comes in. It’s a great learning tool for authors at the beginning of that learning curve. And fun. If done right, it can also produce something that’s a good foundation for development into a full-fledged novel. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


9 thoughts on “When the writing rules fade away

  1. Yep, fully agree. I think the Beat Generation writers really bent the rules, with Bukowski (perhaps not the best example) barely acknowledging what a coherent sentence is. Narrative structure is open to interpretation, and if it’s a compelling story it’s irrelevant if someone doesn’t know what a preposition is. Innit.

    1. Some of that stuff ended up becoming quite dada-esque. I guess that’s the outcome when the limits are explored – and, certainly in writing, we need people to explore those limits! As you say, if people can follow the story, and it’s compelling for them, then it’s achieved its purpose.

  2. Aloha Matthew,

    Good piece, it is helpful.

    I started trudging down the writer’s road some years ago. Now looking back, I can no longer see the beginning. It seems like I’ve come far, feels like it anyway. Ahead the road disappears into the distant shimmers, I have no idea how much farther I have to go.

    The writer’s road doesn’t have mile markers and external indicators of progress are few. However, your “four steps” has given me an internal reference for judging progress. It is subjective but much better than what I had. Thank you.

    A Hui Hou (until next time),

    1. Glad to be of assistance. Yes, the four ‘competence’ steps are subjective – but indeed better than nothing. I suspect authors also float between them to some extent. An ‘unconsciously competent’ author may be only ‘consciously competent’ in areas they’re not too familiar with. It’s one of the reasons why, as Hemingway put it, we are all apprentices.

  3. I’m thinking that in the trad pub era, when the gatekeepers (publishers and editors) regulated what was published, only those writers who had put in the 10,000 hours were published. Then publishing companies were sucked up by multinationals, books became products and profits ruled. At the same time, technology opened the door to hordes of wannabees (I know, because I was one) to publish their stuff. The checks and balances are gone and it’s up to the *reader* to be the gatekeeper — no longer who gets *published*, but who gets *read*. We live in interesting times (and I mean that in both senses).

  4. This is one of the reasons we are disapointed that more readers haven’t read (and commented on) our books. We would welcome knowing if they fall a little short in quality, how else can we improve?

    1. Constructive feedback is definitely a way to learn, for sure. One of the problems with ‘reviews’ (both the reader-comment variety used by Amazon and others, and the more traditional discursive essay of the reviewing world), usually don’t.

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