SHOW-DON’T-TELL: If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you really are a beginner. But that’s okay; Google it and you’ll find an explanation. It’s great advice. Beginners tend to “tell” too often. But darn it, sometimes you just don’t have the time to show everything. It takes longer to show, and you don’t need to show everything. You need to pick and choose. And you need to tailor it to your story. Show the important stuff. Tell the less important stuff. If you’re writing a “chick lit” novel, show those emotions. If you’re writing a techno-thriller a la Tom Clancy, you might just want to tell those emotions and move on to the important parts of the story.

NO SAID-BOOKISMS: Once again, Google it if you don’t know what I mean. Some people are adamant that said-bookisms should never—or at least very, very rarely—be used. Others don’t care at all and use them regularly. If you page through the works of successful, award-winning, best-selling authors, you’ll find many of them using said-bookisms, some frequently, some moderately. In my experience, it is other writers (read: critique groups) who get hung up on said-bookisms. What do I do? I use them sparingly. I personally think they sound silly after a while. For example,

“A knife works on the principle of an inclined plane,” Bob explained.

To my eye, “explained” is redundant. Duh. Just say “said”. And whichever camp you fall in on this issue, let’s agree that “said” is not one of those words that distracts readers if it appears too often. It’s invisible. No one will notice.

But the vast majority of readers—even well educated, widely read readers—won’t notice the redundancy of “explained” in the above example, either. They won’t care.

So, to you anti-said-bookism Nazis out there: get a grip. No one cares but you.

To you said-bookism junkies: please, PLEASE, for the sake of my sanity, don’t have characters hiss dialog with no S’s in it, and don’t ever have them ejaculate dialog. If the story requires something else to be… well, never mind. Writers can have long, successful careers without ever using that word, and I'll leave it at that.

GET YOUR GRAMMAR PERFECT: Authors who’ve published multiple novels or numerous short stories in top markets don’t get all hung up on grammar. They are almost never interested in grammar feedback when you critique their work. Why not? Because they make a mistake every several thousand words (and usually what seems to be a grammar error is a typo). You should be about as good.

This is one of those pieces of advice that beginners often toss out the window. It’s crazy. They’ll adhere to “show-don’t-tell” fanatically and ignore this one. “I don’t need good grammar,” they say. “My story is great. My characters are fantastic. The editor will fix my grammar.”

Well, guess what? Bad grammar stinks. It’s like this. You’re sitting in a movie theater and someone in front of you farts. The stench is awful. You like the movie… or want to like it, but you can’t, because you’re too distracted by the terrible smell. It’s hard to get into a romantic scene when you’re gagging on the fug in the air.

So now I’m reading your novel. It really draws me in; I’m hooked. Then I see a grammar error. Then another. And another. I’m no longer absorbed in your story. I’m thinking about what a lazy slob you are, or at least trying to decipher what you meant to say. Like farts in a movie theater, I can’t enjoy the story if the environment is too distracting.

Furthermore, if you’re one of those people who claim your story is great despite the bad grammar, guess what? There are a dozen other writers submitting to the same editor or publisher whose stories are just as good as yours… and their grammar is clean.

Guess whose story gets published?

I suppose you can limp along with a critique group or friend who fixes all your grammar mistakes for you. As long as the copy you send to the editor is pretty clean, you’re fine. But God bless your critique group if they’re willing to put up with fixing your grammar forever. Learn to write yourself. Let them catch the occasional mistake that slips by. Not a thousand of them.

BOTTOM LINE: Some writing rules are mostly baloney. Some are mostly true. Don’t follow any of them blindly, but don’t toss them out the window too quickly, either.

NEXT TIME: Why story is king.

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