It was interesting to read on Emma Darwin’s excellent blog (This Itch of Writing, linked on the right somewhere) abut yet another ‘debate’ (or stronger) on WriteWords, about guidelines, or rules, call them what you will, when it comes to learning to write well.
I was slapped down so hard when I started such a debate there last year, that I left, and my heart goes out to whoever is embroiled in it this time. I hope they survive unscathed! WriteWords is a very good place, with much of interest for writers, and some excellent expert advice.
But. One piece of expert advice I just could not get my head round was the assertion that there were no rules or guidelines to follow that would sharpen your work. (Semantics, to me. At the time both words were too emotive.). The assertion, not from Emma, was that writing ought to be a free for all (I gathered this was the meaning) and originality and good writing would bob to the top regardless. At the time, no one mentioned the need for learning at any point. All ‘guidelines’ were said to be unnecessary and a constraint.
I believed strongly that this is not right, and said so, to my cost. Of course, writing needs …no … MUST have originality if it is to get anywhere… and of course, if learner writers had to kowtow to ‘you must do this, you must do that’, then the process for many would be killed straight off. That goes without saying!
There are no ‘musts’… and I couldn’t get that across because the air was thick with agendas at the time. My own learning route had been one that was not liked by many (keeping personalities out of it) and I think this was clouding the issue.
Now, however, Emma quotes a very interesting Buddhist tenet (I paraphrase) “When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear.” I love that thought. But it does embrace the belief that we are all ready to be taught in our own time. That has to include that some may be ready to be taught from the start, and that some may never be ready.
All I can say is that had I not had the teaching I had and still seek from those whose writing I admire, my own writing would be perfectly functional and it would ‘work’ but that teaching lifted it out of the ‘ordinary’. It showed me what was possible. And I am still working towards that.
Of course there are guidelines!!! I spent a wonderful week in the company of Maggie Gee and Jacob Ross late last year at an Arvon course. Every day we discussed what worked and what didn’t, right across the spectrum. Process and product. Each and every one of us had one to one time in which we were offered guidelines, on a personal basis, for improving our work. And every day we had group workshops in which both writers shared their vision of what guidelines they follow. And the agreement is surely that if those are assimilated, and used by the individuals in their own ways, their work will improve.
Why do writers of all levels go on courses? To learn from writers who are more successful than they are. To sit at the feet of the successful for a short while, ready to learn.
The argument will probably be that there are no general guidelines. That every writer has to find their own.
But in that case, why are there so many ‘how to’ books on the market? Why are there writing courses at ever level, not just at the highest levels, for those who can already ‘write’?
The article in The New Writer I blogged about yesterday offers a few guidelines that might help writers maximise their chances of bobbing to the top in writing competitions. But they aren’t ‘mine’, those guidelines. I was taught them, by someone who was no doubt taught them himself. Nothing is new.
I have been invited to do a workshop at a local independent school. I am writer in residence at Gateway Academy Tilbury, for this term and some of next. I teach teach teach. Never ever saying you MUST’ do anything. But once creativity is opened up, once we have each other’s confidence, pointing out that if you consider ‘this’ or ‘that’, your prose will be sharper. If you do this that, your narrative structure will be sharper. If you do this, that, your characters might end up more engaging.
All stuff I learned myself, from a good but controversial tutor.
All ‘guidelines’ for strengthening your prose, your characters, your narrative structure. And so on. No one’s saying you have to follow them. There are plenty of places who will pick up your work without them, you may even get rich without them.
But without those guidelines/rules I certainly would not have been placed at Fish and Bridport. Without those ‘rules’ my short stories would have been rejected by Salt Publishing like the majority of submissions there are.
Maybe it’s a question of semantics, all this? Maybe the concept of ‘rules’ is disliked, and ‘guidelines’ softens it a little? Maybe there’s another word that would make it yet more comfortable?
Whatever. As in any artistic endeavour, I reckon before you break the rules/guidelines you need to learn them first and then you can break them with impunity.
EMMA'S DECEMBER ARTICLE on the folly of following rules unthinkingly