Saturday, January 19, 2008

7 or 8 Deadly Sins of Writing by Robert W. Walker

There ain't but one Rule of Writing that is set in stone,
carved in cement, and engraved in granite, and here it is:
*Whatever works. If you can write it and make it work, it's

True enough but there are 7 Deadly Sins that authors from
bestsellers to up and coming and newbies commit that deep-six
their stories and turn off readers. Despite the huge success of
The DaVinci Code for instance, every one of the following sins
can be found in that bestseller.

This notion that there's no rule but "What Works" resonates well
but God spare me the student manuscript or the one sent in by not
one but TWO authors collaborating and I find in chapter one six
pages riddled with 500 verbs to be. Maybe there ought not be any
rules, but unless you make the verb to be work as say the first
person narrator's TICK, then please God spare me the WASes and
the WEREfors.

If a manuscitpt is riddled with pronouns to the degree we no
longer kow who the hell you'r talking about in a scene because
all three of the male characters are being labeled He, him, his,
himself or even hisself....then you have committed not a rule
infraction dealing with weak substitutes for names but one of the
7 Deadly Sins of writing -- which all amount to the sin of being
UNclear, lazy, and downright confusing.

If a script is riddled with flashbacks to the point of making
one ask why aren't you telling THAT story, it is a deadly sin.

If a script is riddled with prepositional phrases that keep
telling the reader such phrases as He got up off the couch ...
She backed up into the garage ...when one prepositon will do as
in She backed into or He stood, or just a proliferation of
prepositonal phrases that have to remind me that it was TO her or
TO me or To God that she went or spoke after it's been made clear
already to whom she is speaking, that is a deadly sin, and God
forbid the sentence with five, six prepositions within it. Preps
are like leeches and they can leach the power right out of a

If a script is ridddled with LY words -- adjectives and adverbs
up the wah-zoo, this is a deadly sin.

If a script is riddled by a single pet word or phrase (The 12
Judge of Hell in one novel I read became like Chinese torture)
the author has unconsciously latched onto whether it is tarmac or
oatmeal, the repitition becomes as tedious as a nail through the

Finally, the 7th Deadly Sin is in the dialogue. Diaogue should
be couched in activity and action. Few real people speak in
whole sentences while standing still. This is where the fragment
really shines and run ons are fair use. People rant, rave, and
to do so inside the quotation marks, please, not outside them.
Inside is character speech, outside is narrative. Inside is the
way to do it and not by using an LY word just the other side of
the quotation mark.

If one intentionally commits one of these sins or more because
the narrator or one of the characters TALKS this way, fine.
Commit all the sins you want but do so knowingly. One final 8th
Sin -- Shifts. Whether it is a time shift, a geographical
location change, or a shift in point of view, the author must
work extremely closely with words that indicate that a shift is
taking place. Those who use flashbacks take heed. But at any
juncture where a major shift takes place, the author needs to
carefully take the reader by hand -- using transitional language
(plus or minus words, add ons or subtractions, numbers, dates,
and swing words or hinge words) and such things as cut lines or
date lines if necessary to bring about a smooth shift, else the
reader is again lost or confused.

These are not RULES but common sense for those with a proficiency
with language. These are not rules but SINS thrown at
unsuspecting readers who deserve better.

Happy Writing
Rob Walker
meet me on Myspace or Crimespace and see you at Love is Murder


Patricia J. Hale said...

Thank you. Nice piece, clearly stated.

I am a sinner, but strive to sin no more.

D.S. Dollman said...

Great advice, Rob! I hope you pass this out to your students!