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How not to write

Recently I pulled Leon Rooke’s The Last Shot off my shelf, and noticed little red page flags sticking out of it. Most curious. How did those get there? I must have stuck them there, for some reason. So I promptly investigated them to see if I could figure out why.

This was pretty easy. They marked stories that I liked. All except one, which just marked a page. But scanning quickly down the page, I found why the flag was there. The reason looked like this:

In Prissy’s estimation Ganger was a boy of weirdly morbid and demented disposition. He was gravely barbecued in the belfry.

That sentence. Ganger is barbecued in the belfry — and not lightly grilled, mind you, but gravely barbecued. That’s a sentence I wish I’d written.

I was thinking about that sentence and it struck me that this wonderful sentence manages, using only seven words, to break three rules much touted by that industry which purports to teach people how to write. That is, it tells, rather than shows; it uses one of those dreaded adverbs; and it is based on a hackneyed phrase, a worn-out metaphor, a cliché. And this should tell you that something is deeply wrong with the “how to write” manuals and the writing workshops, rather than the sentence in question.

So the lesson of the day, I suppose, is that you can follow all the standard writing advice, and write the same way everyone else does, or you can rewrite the rulebook to your own ends.

Categories: leon rooke, writing
  1. August 10, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    I do agree–it’s a fabulous sentence and rules don’t work all that well for writing. However, in cases like this, I think defiance of received wisdom has to be earned. LR can write write whatever he wants because he’s *so good*–and his instincts towards rule breaking don’t lead him astray. I don’t have his mastery, and when in doubt I fall back on the basics. Rules are like training wheels: undignified, but better than falling into the gutter/writing something stupid.

  2. December 12, 2016 at 3:02 pm

    Just discovered you; commenting very late and so much to read, but on this: don’t THEY always say: “learn the rules, then break them”?

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