Follow the Rules, She Whispered
July 12, 2016 § 29 Comments
by Jan Priddy
Some years ago in a writing workshop, twelve people sat around a broad conference table arguing about the word “whispered.”
The text we were looking at had a dialogue tag of “he whispered.” That was a problem. Our instructor insisted we avoid words other than “said” to attribute dialogue. If you have attended a writing workshop at any time in the past thirty years or so, you know this rule. The variations on “said” my fourth grade teacher once suggested—averred, argued, contended—are today often viewed as authorial intrusions detracting from the message. The dialogue itself should indicate the emotion without attendant “shouted” or “demanded.”
In the case of this particular “whispered,” the writer said his character’s words were spoken softly even though the words themselves did not indicate volume. The group sought alternative wording to eliminate “whispered,” but “said softly” or “said quietly” were also problematic because of the rule about avoiding adverbs. (Surely you know that one.) The group floated alternatives, which violated other rules: “he said in a low voice” was wordy. We argued and suggested and discarded suggestions without getting anywhere. We went on like this for nearly half an hour.
The most graceful word choice? Whispered.
Neither of these teachers—the one in grade school and the one in the college writing class—were wrong, but they are spouting opposing rules that themselves are grounded in trends.
There are even trends in the uses of punctuation. The em-dash has always been my favorite punctuation mark and I have used it ever since discovering the long dash, perhaps in Emily Dickinson’s work during high school. It was regularly struck out in my school papers as an unacceptable punctuation mark. Today it is a common and accepted. I used it above—did you notice? On the other hand, I needed a decade of teaching English to really get comfortable with the semicolon, and it is a great sadness to me that I am now told I should not use one. Ever.
And here we come to my morning read, posted by a writer friend:
V.S. Naipaul’s Rules for Beginners
- Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words.
- Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.
- Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.
- Never use words whose meaning you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.
- The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of colour, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.
- Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.
- Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; short, clear, concrete sentences. It may be awkward, but it’s training you in the use of language. It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university. You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.
Naipaul’s writing rules offer generally great advice, and yet . . . “1. Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than 10 or 12 words.” Naipaul follows his own rule for only four sentences, before: “If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong.” There are nineteen words in that sentence and more than 12 words in seven of twenty sentences among his rules. I am sure Naipaul is generally correct about sentence length, especially for American readers schooled in journalistic brevity by Hemingway. But there are exceptions to all rules, including the one about beginning a sentence with a conjunction, as I just did.
To see what long sentences can accomplish, read anything by Virginia Wolf. Read Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried.”
Sentences that are very short—of just one to three words, when they are the right words—may play off powerfully against longer sentences. Try it.
Passive voice? Sometimes is has to be done.
Writers today usually avoid adverbs, but sometimes they contribute.
Writers may use too many state of being verbs—stronger verbs are a better choice.
Phonetic spelling? Present tense? Detailed descriptions of scenery? Unattributed dialogue? Can we do those things? Search “rules for writer” and you will find dozens of authors laying down the law for writers.
Anyone who is reasonably well read and paying close attention, must be aware that rules about what can and should be done are subject to exception. Sometimes the rules are simply silly.
In fact, the most common attribute among written rules about writing is how often they violate the very rules they describe. Sometimes this is done ironically, as I have above. More often it is done because the most effective way of making a point involves breaking a general rule. Even Strunk and White violate their own rules about such violations as passive voice, adjectives, and negatives while describing them.
Before you go too far down the line of violating rules, however, there is that one we are so very sick of: You have to know the rules before you can break them. That is also Naipaul’s point. It might be true. I think it is.
Using stronger verbs, for example, is generally a more interesting choice that propping up weak verbs with adverbs. The word “said” pretty much does vanish from the reader’s consciousness when the dialogue itself is interesting. Using punctuation and vocabulary readers understand avoids confusion. And yet . . .
The character Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn drives most skimming high school readers crazy because his dialogue is written phonetically. This seems to prove a common rule about such idiomatic writing. On the other hand, when read aloud, Jim’s words are perfectly clear and the various dialects Twain uses have “not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech” rather than an accident of people trying to “talk alike and not succeeding.” Even Huck himself, though perfectly punctuated, uses slang and characteristic syntax to make his voice heard. Those of us willing to listen to as well as look at his words appreciate the voice on the page.
V.S. Naipaul’s advice for beginners is worthy. It is correct. It is useful. It is also ultimately wrong. Sometimes.
Jan Priddy lives in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon, where she completed an MFA at Pacific University. Her work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, and Pushcart nomination. Her most recent publication is “White Noise” in the anthology, What Does It Mean to Be White in America? She breaks most rules when she can.