Having settled the matter of punctuation, I couldn’t resist compiling my own list of dos and don’ts. Because, ooooh we all love a list these days.
There are lots of lists out there giving copywriting advice. Many of them are very good. However my list is rather more random than that, and should probably be titled “Various Bits of General Writing Advice I’ve Been Given Over the Years”. So from school onwards, here are the wise words that have stuck with me. I don’t abide by them, or even agree with all of them – but I do remember them, which says something.
Never write a line you would be ashamed to read at your own funeral
I read this years ago in L M Montgomery’s marvellous Anne of the Island. Our heroine is given this advice by wise old Aunt Jamesina on the occasion of Anne’s first published article. I rather like it. However if the best they can come up with at my funeral is quoting from my manifestation dots piece, much as I love the dots, my life has probably taken a wrong turn somewhere.
If you’re really proud of a line, take it out
I can’t remember where I first heard this one. But come on – if I’m really proud of a line, why should I remove it? Just remember that there is a difference between feeling pleased with your efforts and needing to get over yourself.
The Mom Rule
This is a safety-net rule that I came across recently. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want your “mom” to read.
Since my mum joined Facebook, I’m aware that my updates have been rather less grumpy and cynical. Mums have an influence. And my mum is particularly scary as she is a demon proofreader who homes in on typos like a gull on a pasty (Cornish copywriter simile). I still get nervous when she reads my work.
I’ve also heard of the Mom Rule being used as a way to get a conversational style going. Imagine your writing starts with “Hey Mom” – it reminds you to keep your tone lively and engaging. Missing the point I feel. However much writers love their parents, there’s a lot more creative freedom if you don’t imagine your mother reading it. Ever.
I wonder, did E L James worry about elderly relatives…?
Elmore Leonard – if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it
That’s just one of the many sound bits of advice from Elmore Leonard. His 2001 10 Rules of Writing is probably the definitive list and just makes such perfect sense. Remember – “said” is your friend, adverbs your avowed enemies; and exclamation marks should be used only at moments of extreme crisis.
Write drunk, edit sober
Usually attributed to Hemingway. Great for the louche-drinking-absinthe-in-the-attic school of writing. Doesn’t work for flat roof websites. Don’t go there.
George Orwell – never use a long word where a short one will do, and if it’s possible to cut a word out, cut it out
Yes yes yes. We were all told this at uni. And ignored it, obviously. We Eng Lit students adopted the mantra “Be as overblown as possible”. (Our tutors must have winced as each freshers’ week brought a new influx of long-skirted girls idolising Angela Carter.) Age and experience have taught me that this is the best piece of advice ever for writers – if you actually want your readers to understand you, that is. As an Eng Lit undergraduate, you’re probably hoping for the opposite.
Feel free to break the rules
Mr Orwell again. Whatever the plethora of how-to lists tell you, nothing is prescribed. I am off to have half a bottle of La Fee then overuse some very long adjectives.