13 February 2023

Writing habits I’ve fallen into. Ignore at will.

Never end a sentence with a preposition?  That is the sort of pedantry up with which I shall not put. (Winston Churchill)

Sometimes it's okay to savagely split an infinitive.  (Me)

And if it sometimes feels right to start a sentence with 'and' or 'but,' do it. 

Subject, predicate, object is almost always the right order.  Until it gets boring. (Strunk and White)

Anglo-Saxon words make for sturdy, yeoman-like prose.  The Romance words add, well, romance,

even insouciance, but use them sparingly, n’est-ce pas? (S&W)

The S&W team also said to never use “However” at the start of a sentence.  They preferred “Nevertheless”.  However, this proviso rarely works in common English discourse, so thank them for their service and use that however however you want. 

Elmore Leonard also had a list of writing rules.  They’re mostly worth following, but not starting a novel with weather?  What if it’s snowing?  Never use a word other than “said” to carry dialogue?  Okay, except “said” looks funny after a question mark.  “You don’t agree?” I said. 

Regarding books on writing, Stephen King’s book is a lesson in why you’ll never be as prolific a writer as Stephen King.  Go read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.  You’ll actually learn a few useful things. 

Whom and shall are oft-neglected, beautiful words.  For Who the Bell Tolls?  You may eschew such seemingly atavistic terminology, but I never shall.

 My English teachers said to leave out the comma in front of the word 'and' in a set - do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti and do.  And I'm sticking with it, won’t change and to hell with Oxford University.  And I'm putting commas in front of adverbs, no matter what modern copy editors say, derisively.

I agree with Lewis Thomas that the least appreciated punctuation mark is the semi-colon; how this precious tool slipped into obscurity is anyone’s guess.  

I also love his equating the exclamation mark with an annoying child who’s just interrupted an adult conversation.  Touché!

I can never remember if the period is supposed to go inside or outside parenthesis (which bugs the hell out of my stickler of a wife.).

She also taught me to read what I’ve written out loud.  You’ll know right away if it’s working or not.  Writing and music are cousins.  Both benefit from proper pacing, rhythm and variable dynamics.  And sounds that fall agreeably on the ear. 

English speakers, even the most polished and pretentious, use contractions.  “I cannot believe how many writers do not understand this,” she said, derisively. 

We also speak in short, clipped phrases.  No one delivers paragraphs of dialogue, unless they’re priests, college professors or your drunk, pontificating uncle.

As to paragraphs, shorter are better, but not too many that are too short. 

Use quotes, not dashes, to define dialogue.  Unless you’re James Joyce, who can do anything he wants. 

The only rule of writing is there are no rules.  Listen to advice, then do what feels right.  It might work, it might not.   Readers are the ultimate arbiters.  Writing is an art, boundless and unpredictable.  I only suggest that you learn all you can about what’s been done.  The greatest improvisors are those who’ve mastered the form before launching out into the untried, the startling new.  



  1. My main rules in writing are to read, read, read, and write, write, write. With any luck, at some point, you'll develop your own style and the hell with the rules.

  2. Bravo, Chris. Clarity and interest/energy outweigh "correctness" every time. That's probably why most of the English teachers I know are terrible writers. They remember the grammar they inflicted upon their students.
    "Breaking the rules" is how we find our own voice. All bad writers sound pretty much alike, but good writers sound like themselves.
    The Bible (and Steinbeck) often begin a sentence with "and." And it works.
    Rita Mae Brown's book Starting From Scratch has a great chapter on Anglo-Saxon vs Romance (Latinate) words.
    I know several great books on writing, but all I got from Stephen King's book was how writing helped him recover after being hit by a car and critically injured.
    Yes, Eve, you've got to read constantly. And when you find a technique that works, steal it!

  3. Thanks, Steve and Eve. Agree on all points. You can't write if you don't read. Steve, you may have noticed, as a musician, that the classically trained have a hard time playing popular/rock/folk tunes. I think it's the same issue faced by English teachers. Formality can mess up their natural voice. One of the drummers in my band is fantastic on the drums, but is classically trained on keyboards, and he struggles there without sheet music. I think it might be different neural pathways.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>