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Terry Bisson's Rules for Writing SFF short stories


One author says not to do something; another author effectively does what the other author said not to. Is your reaction:

A) Well, the practice is different from the advice, so I should completely ignore the advice and use all the adverbs that I want.

B) Try to develop an understanding of why adverb usage is considered suboptimal so that you will gain an understanding of when you can effectively use them.

What he said.

But, hey, why not make the first one even more emphatic? How about this:

A.2) Because I see a bunch of successful writers violating a rule, openly, flagrantly and frequently, I should violate that rule as well.

Guess what? You've just written yourself a rule.

Note that it specifies that you should violate the rule, not merely ignore it. After all, if you're trying to emulate the success of these authors, you'll want to do what they do, and since you've specifically cited their violations of rules, you ought to do the same. And in fact this might work in your favor… if you know what the "rule" in question is, if you can identify how, when and most importantly why they violate it where they do, and if you can take that insight and apply it to your own writing. It's the old advice: you need to know the rules before you can break them.

Before you enter that one into your personal canon, you might wish to devote some thought to the following question:

How many successful authors do you see who don't violate the rule openly, flagrantly and/or frequently?

Whatever "rule," or set thereof, that might be. Have you really performed a quantitative study to determine which techniques are most successful, most broadly used, most often "violated," and to what extent when they are? Have you done this even for a single author who you see "violating" whatever "rules" are your personal pet peeves, to know how frequently that author violates said rules, and how frequently he does not?

Those are rhetorical questions, of course: you haven't.

Consider it a challenge.

Don't tell me that, for instance, Rowling (or whoever*) uses adverbs, so they must be okay. Tell me the percentage of sentences in which she uses adverbs. Which will also yield the percentage in which she does not. Tell me how many adverbs appear in any given sentence when they crop up.

Then do this for another author you admire–their writing style or their financial success, whichever it is that prompts your admiration. And another. Et cetera. Be sure to include authors who are successful but whose writing style you don't admire if you wish to obtain valid data on which techniques lead to those results.

Then tell me that you actually want to write the way Rowling does–that you don't believe an occasional adverb deletion might improve her writing–and aren't simply throwing her up as an example of a successful author who "violates the rules." If that's your goal, great: go for it. By that point, you will understand what you're doing and will be doing it deliberately. Though you might wish to consider your target audience while you're at it. What works in children's literature may not work nearly as well in other contexts.


I would point out that the "anti-rule" people appear to hold an opinion that the "rules are useful" people do not, and furthermore tend to project that opinion on the latter. That opinion is taking general rules as if they were absolutes. Those of us who find "rules" useful do not hold this opinion, and it should not be projected upon us.

There isn't a single "rules are useful" person here who has endorsed the notion of, for example, "no adverbs," anywhere in this thread, nor would they. I have never even seen a rule expressed as "don't use adverbs–period." No responsible author or editor would ever say this. Authors are enjoined to avoid adverbs, to limit their use… and for good reason: beginners have a marked tendency to use them at every opportunity. Which makes for lousy writing. In many cases, beginning writers pad their work with adverbs (and other items) simply to increase their word count, since that's the basis upon which they are paid: the more words, the better, right? Well, not if the story gets rejected for being purple-prose tripe, it doesn't.

Ideally, they are also told the why behind the rule, and how to amend their writing to improve it. This does not merely involve the deletion of adverbs–though for a beginning writer, trying this makes a good exercise, to demonstrate how many of them constitute unnecessary verbiage. It involves identifying what the author thinks the adverb is accomplishing, and seeing if the same thing couldn't be accomplished by, say, using a more precise verb which renders the adverb redundant and thus a candidate for deletion. Or realizing that the adverb is already redundant given the rest of the context, as is often the case. Or that it is a superfluous piling on, as with most instances of word "very," for example.

So beginners are told that this is a significant problem they need to be wary of. And since this is such a significant, and common, problem, and since beginners are probably unaccustomed to reading their own work critically, they are told this in direct and emphatic fashion: a simple rule they can remember. Once they have learned to apply the general principle, then they can pass on to more subtle gradings. Once a text has been pruned of redundancies and refined by more precise vocabulary, what adverbs remain will probably be unobjectionable.

While adverbs tend to bear the brunt of criticism–since they are the more often gratuitous–the same advice applies to adjectives: see if you can't come up with a more precise noun which renders the adjective superfluous. If you can't, fine. But it's worth the effort.

See Mr. Twain's rules #13 and #14.

Even this is but a single example of a "rule"… one which probably receives more attention than it deserves. Most authors who've practiced their craft for any length of time have long since internalized this one–and apply it, automatically and unconsciously, and when they do use adverbs they are well aware of it, and why, and genuinely do avoid using them where they would be gratuitous or redundant. There are plenty of other "rules" which might be profitably discussed, should anyone be growing tired of this one. (Bisson's, or anyone else's… note that Bisson doesn't mention adverbs on his list at all. He assumes people reading his rules are well past that point, and is focusing on a far more narrow aspect of the craft.)


I would also point out that none of the "rules are useful" people has anywhere deprecated the necessity of reading, both broadly and in depth, as the core of the craft. No one is ever going to learn to write well from a set of rules alone… though, honestly, I can't imagine anyone wanting to write without having ever read anything, so any such argument borders on being a straw man. It is possible to learn to write well through reading alone, without conscious consideration of "rules"–the word "conscious" is an important one here: it isn't possible to write, period, let alone well, without having first internalized a vast number of rules, even if these are only ever applied unconsciously. The utility of list of rules is to bring the myriad facets of the craft to the writer's conscious consideration, and to introduce new facets the writer might never have noticed or perhaps even encountered otherwise.

Which is why I always take seriously lists of "rules" such as the present one: that chance at a "Wow, I never thought of that" moment. :)


It's the attitude of dismissing advice without trying to consider why the advice was given that I find so maddening.

Again, what he said.


* Disclaimer: I can't recall who all has mentioned Rowling, only that her name came up in the discussion. Wanted to make sure I'm not being unfair to anyone here by implying that any given commenter had her in mind.

P.S. Go ahead. Count the number of adverbs in this post. I don't mind. I know why I used them, each and every one. ;)
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If that's all true, and I'm not saying it's not, what's the point of more experienced writers giving advice at all? What's the point of writing lists of rules? You can't emulate a list of rules. You emulate an author's actual creative work.

What I said was most writers learn through:
1) Emulation
2) Experimentation

In the case of #2, I myself have learned a great deal from reading lists and experimenting with a particular writer's personal rules. I know many writers who would say the same. So yes, you emulate someone's work or voice...you experiment with techniques or concepts, some if which may be written in a list of rules.

I have my own list own rules, completely stolen from other lists. I'd never share it without a request because I don't have any more success to hang my hat on than most aspiring writers. That and, like I said, it's all stolen goods. Still, these are principles and techniques which, over time, have combined into the writing style I've chosen.

An example from Elmore Leonard's list that made it onto mine, verbatim:

-Never modify the word "said".

If I look at scribblings I wrote years ago, I modified "said" all the time. After reading Leonard's rule, I read more on the topic. I studied a few examples. Then, I put it into practice, forcing myself away from "said modifiers". In the end, I liked the result. It read cleaner, in my opinion, and brought me closer to the vision I have for my own writing. It's now in my toolbox. Must it go into yours? Nope, we're different artists.
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Never modify the word "said".

Yep. Been there, done that. My personal response has been twofold.

First: replacing "said" with another verb which reflects the desired modifier. Thing is, that also is a violation of a not uncommon (sub)rule, based on claims that the word "said" is essentially invisible–whereas replacing it with something else is not–so you shouldn't bother breaking out your thesaurus in attempt to avoid it. That's one I don't fully buy into, so plus one for rules haterz. On the other hand, I reached this conclusion after applying critical consideration to it… so plus one for rules friendz. (Yes, I just made that word up. :p )

The reason for the "just use 'said'" rule is that replacing it can itself create problems, as authors bombard the reader with synonyms for the sole sake of variety–not more precise vocabulary that reflects both the saying and the manner thereof. That much, I do agree with… so plus one more for the friendz. I doubt I ever would have reached this insight had someone not presented an explicit case for this particular style point, forcing me to consider it.

Second: removing the "said" clause altogether. As long as the surrounding context can keep it clear to the reader who's saying what, it's superfluous. In the process of doing this, I've often ended up enriching that context, resulting in a double gain for the story.

That's what a "rule" can do for you… if you approach it correctly. :cool:
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That's what a "rule" can do for you… if you approach it correctly. :cool:
Yes, and that approach would be an example of how these lists can be helpful, which is what I hoped to illustrate.

I'm not trying to argue that anyone else beside myself should follow this particular rule though. I offered it as an example from my experience... another's rule that I assimilated, nothing more. Whether anyone else adheres to it, or experiments with the principle is for each individual to decide.
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So, Guy, what's your takeaway from that?

One author says not to do something; another author effectively does what the other author said not to. Is your reaction:

A) Well, the practice is different from the advice, so I should completely ignore the advice and use all the adverbs that I want.

B) Try to develop an understanding of why adverb usage is considered suboptimal so that you will gain an understanding of when you can effectively use them.
False dichotomy. If you stopped oversimplifying, you'd probably see the points people are making. I answered these questions in a previous post. One of my main points is that a lot of this is genre or audience specific. If a writer says, "Never do _____________" and your audience obviously wants you to do ______________, then you'd be an absolute fool to follow that writer's advice. Do I really need to point out how stupid it would be for erotica writers to follow a rule that says you should never portray sex?

Did you not see where I wrote that if I found the rule reasonable I followed it? Maybe I looked at why a writer had a rule, found the reason wanting and chose not to follow it. Or maybe his rule worked for his audience, genre, or style but wouldn't for mine. I see no reason why I should surrender my judgement and do something just because somebody said I should. A writer may be successful but none of them are infallible.

Has the author written the type of story I like? If so, he can post his advice, but it would be superfluous. I can read his story and clearly see how he does it. If the author has written the type of story I don't like, why would I want to take his advice? So that I, too, can write stories I don't like? Successful writers are very good at writing the types of stories they want to tell... but those might not be the types of stories I want to tell.
It's the attitude of dismissing advice without trying to consider why the advice was given
You're assuming I didn't consider that.
that I find so maddening.
Why? It's got nothing to do with you. Use whatever method you like. I don't care. Why the obsession with other people's methods?