NEVER SAY NEVER: Do You Always Have to Follow Writing “Rules” to Be a Successful Blogger?

Posted By Guest Blogger 15th of September 2016 Writing Content 0 Comments

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This is a guest contribution from author Daryl Rothman.

Never,” exhorts George Orwell in his prolific essay Politics and the English Language, “use a long word where a short word will do.”

This etymological edict claims many adherents, and who amongst us has not wrestled with that great literary conundrum of word choice? Whether you blog, pen fiction, nonfiction or anything at all, finding the right words and writing style is essential. But how to do it? And are these rules written in stone?

THE GREAT DEBATE

William Faulkner might have said no, especially in light of an exchange he once shared with Ernest Hemingway. Their relationship was freighted at turns with rivalry and respect, and some believe Faulkner intended no malice when he said pointedly of his fellow Nobel Prize winner: “he has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”

But there would be no farewell to arms, as Hemingway fired back: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

Reprinted with permission of RE Parrish

Reprinted with permission of RE Parrish

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Their sometimes salty repartee underscores rather famously the fuss (or am I better to say, hullaballoo, or perhaps rumpus) over Orwell’s entreaty. Hemingway and myriad others have shown convincingly that size isn’t everything, that simpler can be better, but the question doth remain, is it always? Let’s return to Mr. Faulkner. Consider this passage from As I Lay Dying:

“How do our lives ravel out into the no-wind, no-sound, the weary gestures wearily recapitulant: echoes of old compulsions with no-hand on no-string: in sunset we fall into furious attitudes, dead gestures of dolls.”

Now what was it Mr. Orwell said? Never use a long word when a short word will do? Well then. Lovely as the above passage is, perhaps it would stand in even loftier esteem were we to adhere the great rule. Let’s give it a shot:

“How do our lives smooth out

into the no-wind, no-sound,

the weary gestures wearily replayed:

echoes of old drives with no-hand on no-string:

in sunset we fall into angry moods,

dead gestures of dolls.”

Well, not too bad, uh? Has its moments. Not quite so good as the original, I’d say, but still. But let’s try another. Cormac McCarthy, The Road.

“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

Goodness, that’s something of a doozy. Let’s see if we can clean it up a spot.

“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the yellow current where the white edges of their fins bent softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and twisted. On their backs were curved patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

Better? I mean, come on, torsional?

Um, yeah. Torsional. And only that. And quite possibly only McCarthy could write it, right there and right then, perfectly. I remember first reading that passage years ago and thinking, wow, I’d have never thought of that but how very perfect indeed. Same with wimpled. I remembered catching a rainbow trout in a river in Colorado and how it looked and felt and so there again, when I read that it resonated flawlessly. But maybe that’s me.

And that’s very much the point.

FINDING THE RIGHT WORDS

I remember the dry comedian Steven Wright quipping: “I’ve written several children’s books—but not on purpose.”

I am rather disinclined to tender a dispatch to Mr. McCarthy imploring him to kindly dumb things down. Of course, the Hemingways, O’Connors, and so many others have more than demonstrated the power of a more spare approach to prose (not that they haven’t produced their share of elegant, lyrical, and yes, longer passages too).

One should not impugn good, crisp, leaner writing as in fact dumbed down, for sometimes, perhaps even often, Hemingway is right. Simple can be better, more potent in their sparsity. Consider this passage from his fabled short, The Snows of Kilimanjaro:

“He was going to sleep a little while. He lay still and death was not there. It must have gone around another street. It went in pairs, on bicycles, and moved absolutely silently on the pavements.”

Not bad at all, I think we’d say. No wimpled or vermiculate yet just as strong in its way, in what it says and what it doesn’t, and in the efficient yet still depthful manner of its crafting. And the depth of the moment the subject—looming death—is best served by this unvarnished presentation. Of course, there is a bit more going on there, too. A wonderful bit of personification, death “not there” yet close, just around the corner, pedaling on “another street.” Yet surely to return. This is not said and there again, the power of saying something simply, or not at all.

He didn’t need to go all McCarthy, nor McCarthy all Hemingway. The best writers find the best words, and the best words adhere no preordained styles or rules. And permit me here a brief caveat. While clearly I am rejecting the notion of tendering Orwell an obedient “will do,” that very portion of his counsel warrant fair consideration. Never use a long word where a short word will do. Not, when a short word is available (for one almost certainly is). Will do. Will suffice, or perhaps even, do better. But even through the context of that lens, we are left with the same charge: determining, in fact, what will do better and, in fact, what will do best. And neither Orwell nor anyone can answer that in advance.

A BALANCING ACT

Harvard’s Dr. Stephen Pinker—one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, and an esteemed linguist, author, psychologist and cognitive scientist—addresses in his book The Sense of Style Orwell’s admonition. Pinker, who serves as Chair of the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary, acknowledges that floridity for its own sake is by no means desirable (“showing off with fancy words you barely understand can make you look pompous and occasionally ridiculous”), yet also reminds us it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Noting that many studies on quality writing cite the utility of a varied vocabulary replete with some surprising words, he stresses that “a skilled writer can enliven and sometimes electrify her prose with the judicious insertion of a surprising word.”

I concur with all of this, maybe most of all the support of mixing things up a bit. A quick return to the McCarthy passage is case in point–consider these successive sentences:

On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes.

The first is a longer, lyrical sentence headlines by a somewhat unusual, or at least less common word, vermiculate. The next sentence is short, crisp, each word simple. And it works, this ebb and flow, this variety: it works in this passage, throughout the book, and for any writer committed and skilled enough to artfully employ it.

Some of the reasons for that go even deeper, Pinker says. “The best words,” writes Pinker, “not only pinpoint an idea better than any alternative but echo it in their sound and articulation, a phenomenon called phonesthetics”. The lesson once more: sometimes simpler is better, sometimes not, and it doesn’t hurt to mix it up a bit. My first novel was Young Adult/Fantasy and I was preoccupied with finding the right balance between challenging young readers yet not turning them off by compelling too many trips to the dictionary. But some of that, argues Pinker (and this was always my inclination), is not such a bad thing. “Readers who want to become writers should read with dictionary at hand,” he writes. I certainly always do, viewing it as my readerly responsibility to be up to the level of the scribe. If the prose ultimately emerges as too stuffy or florid or freighted with finery for the mere sake of it, then I’ll put it down soon enough anyway. That’s just business. But “writers should not hesitate,” Pinker continues, “to send their readers (to the dictionary) if the word is dead-on in meaning, evocative in sound, and not so obscure that the reader will never see it again.” The writerly responsibility. And so it goes.

I had the good fortune to see Dr. Pinker last year when he was in town for a speaking engagement, and he has been kind enough to respond to my occasional correspondence since. I told him how I bristled at the frequent exhortation toward blind adherence of these dictates, particularly the “long word/short word” one, and I was grateful for his response and commiseration. “I tend to agree,” he told me, “that the puritanical advice on avoiding unusual words in classic style manuals (a reaction to florid, over-wordy Victorian styles) is overdone, and that rare words can enliven prose.”

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SO WHAT TO DO?

It’s simple. (No, really.) Never say never. I remember a friend in my MSW program years ago lecturing me that I could not start a sentence in the Op-Ed piece I was writing with a conjunction. “You can’t begin a sentence with and,” she wrote. I knew this was the standard grammatical “rule” of course, but this was not an essay, it was an opinion piece, with a slightly more conversational tone. And sometimes we need to adjust our prose to tone or subject or audience at hand (or even break the rules and begin with a conjunction, as I have done here).

I write fiction so that’s what I’ve touched on here but I also write articles and posts—to wit—and blog, like many of you, and it is essential that we in fact consider these factors—tone, subject, audience, desired effect—in our writing. Are you blogging about a serious topic, or light? Are you writing for a highly-educated audience? Is there a call to action you want your readers to embrace? There are myriad instructive articles such as this one geared toward bloggers and anyone writing to persuade or even sell.

Again, I would only caution against accepting on faith any rules or secrets or magic bullets because at the end of the day there is simply no one size fits all. For those of you who also pen fiction I would consider you word choice against the nature of your story itself, and its characters. A raw tale of raw and hard-edged characters garnished throughout with gaudy prose may reek of pretension, or at the very least, incongruity. Now, it’s possible to pull it off.

Editors have instructed me that if the characters wouldn’t think like that or speak like that, I shouldn’t write like that, and this is oftentimes sage wisdom. Oftentimes, not always. Again, McCarthy. I could probably count on one hand individuals who think or speak like he writes—and maybe Judge Holden but otherwise few if any of his own characters—yet still, it works. Never say never. There’s only one McCarthy, granted, so adherence to some of the long-standing rules may in fact anchor many of us mere mortals, but the point is, it can be done. Rules can be broken, if there is a good reason, and it is done well.

Rules can anchor us but also constrain us. Render us hesitant and insecure. Throw off your literary shackles, friends, and write free. You’re gonna edit anyway. And shoot, if you’re worried about floridity, you can always run things through that Hemingway app they came up with a few years ago (and which Hemingway himself, they said, wouldn’t always rate highly on). Rules be damned, at least for your first drafts. As Pinker writes, many of them are rooted not in sound logic but superstition anyway. Write with confidence, take some chances. Write what’s right, and no one knows that better than you.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

We are a literary community, and I’d love to hear from you. Do you struggle with finding the right words, or worrying about rules? Have you discovered that elusive balance? Please share your questions, and your wisdom. Thank you, and write on!

Daryl Rothman’s debut novel The Awakening of David Rose was published in 2016, he has written for a variety of esteemed publications and he’d love you to visit him on Twitter, Linked In , Google + , Facebook or his website.

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Comments
  1. Great article! As a person who is super into rules, I find it hard but necessary to break writing rules. It has taken me some time to finally breaka free and allow my writing to take on it’s own uniques style. I hope to continue to break more rules in future :D

    • Great discussion here Darren! I’ve been focusing on writing long posts myself because as a reader I prefer this format over the series. I also find them to be a great resource that I can constantly reference in future posts. Aside from the cons listed, I’ll also add that long posts can feel a bit discouraging when you don’t get the response (in comments or shares) that you would have hoped for given how much time you invested.

  2. Hi Daryl,

    Bloggers get a pass. A pass most authors reject, hence, their struggle.

    We bloggers write how we wish to write to resonate with our audience. Meaning, we can break a wide array of rules to become successful.

    I wrote an eBook on Amazon about how to find your writing voice. I broke plenty of writing rules in writing the sucker. Yet it’s the #3 ranked eBook in a competitive category, with 48 five star reviews.

    Why?

    In essence, I stay true to a few rules for finding your writing voice but break more.

    I also give writers and bloggers permission to write how they wish to write. To resonate with an audience they wish to resonate with. Meaning, they can break all the rules they wish to break to run a popular blog. Or, to write eBooks that sell.

    It’s less about following rules and more about following your heart to align with an audience who appreciates your work.

    On da flip; I appreciate folks who practice writing daily, to craft crisper writing, to make an impact and to make their point without bloat. So yeah, follow a few basic rules, break a bunch and most of all, write from your heart/divine center/core, and you’ll do A-OK as a blogger.

    Says the many time Amazon best selling pro blogging island hopper ;)

    Thanks for the cool share Daryl!

    Ryan

  3. I believe that the purpose of communicative writing (which most blogs are) is understanding – making sure that the intended message is received with as little loss as possible. In that sense, as long as your message is understood, you can bend the “rules” a little bit.

  4. Great article – it touches on some things I’ve struggled with, especially in my journey of commercial copywriting. You learn these hard and fast writing rules in school, and then you attempt to write practically and it seems no one else got the memo. So who is right or wrong? (Obviously, nobody – but we fight ideas that counter our own.)

    In my case, stylistic choices and “writing rules” will not necessarily influence the success of the piece. However, I enjoy playing with style and different writing theories – even if I’m the only one who appreciates the creative experiments :)

  5. I confess to being utterly intoxicated by any excuse that sends me to the dictionary. I have loved words ever since the age of five, when my mother handed me a tiny green softbound dictionary lettered in gold and promised me that when I learned to read, I would want to read those pages. She was absolutely right.
    So are you.
    Multi-syllabic monstrosities are not automatically better than clipped prose, but deep in the piece was the comment that the right word at the right time has unique power. That is the way I try to write, and when I have occasion to coach anyone, that is what I teach: the right word at the right time.
    I love language. I love dissecting it. I love writing it. I love reading it. This is a wonderful tribute to great writing. Great writers don’t make rules; they raise the standards. It is good for all of us.

  6. Hey Daryl,

    We are all awed by the success of blogs and websites. We also want to be there, shining in the glory of a fan base. Life would have been so easy if we created content and visitors came pouring from all sides.

    We are social beings, even in the virtual world. If your content is worth sharing, I need to share it with the people.The fundamental step you need to take is, make your content shareable and the immediate next step is to make the sharing process as easy as it can get for the user.

    When you find great content somewhere else, you may want to use it. Obviously, you are not going to plagiarize. But, you can think of ways to make it even better and you re-write it with that in mind. Or you may find content in text form that you can use to create an infographic or a slide presentation.

    It’s important to note that this entire activity should be revisited from time to time to ensure that your brand remains current and that you are responding to the changing needs of your customers.

    With best regards,

    Amar kumar

  7. No, I try to but always failed in creating a attractive title for my articles. I know this fact for being a successful writer, one must write a stuff which is attractive enough to bound a user to read his/her posts in full.

  8. In that short and simple sentence from Orwell there are two words, “will do”. This piece is an exploration of what they mean – and a good one.

  9. Hi Daryl,

    First of all: Great Post! This is a really interesting discussion.

    For my own blog-writing i follow the “Never use a long word where a short word will do” rule as good as i can. The reason is that i have no interest in making the readers admire me for all the words i know. I want them to enjoy the message that the text provides. The facts. And in my experience some people will give up reading if they come across a word they either dont understand or is hard to read.

    Ben

  10. In life some rules are non-negotiable, … others, well, not so much. Same goes for writing. Language is fluent, what was the norm two or three hundred years ago appears stilted and foppish today.

  11. Jessica Ablamsky says: 09/21/2016 at 4:59 am

    When I was young, I wondered I complained about having to learn grammar. My mother said, “You should follow the rules until you’re good enough to break them.” After nearly a decade as a professional writer, that’s how I feel about all the writing rules.

  12. As Daryl’s article says, simple can be great when it achieves your goal but don’t all those rules designed to pare away ‘excess’ and lock us into a writing success formula, just make us sound more and more like each other? Rules sound a bit like painting by numbers, the product at the end is serviceable but does it move us or inspire us? I am glad to have had the opportunity to try to improve my own expressiveness by reading authors that can use adventurous and challenging language as well as the simple.

  13. I don’t believe that you have to follow any rules to blog, what works for some doesn’t work for others and traditional blogging has been replaced by social media and infographics, videos and podcasts. Also people don’t want to read as much, so shorter blogs usually do better. I read that on average, people only read about 28 percent of a blog post – therefore this means there is no point posting really long ones as you can break them down and release them as a series of blogs rather than all together.

    As long as the tone of the blogs is similar across the website for the business, then this is fine!

  14. Firstly I Write the headings of the article on notebook and also note down the keywords which i have to use.