Sunday, February 27, 2011

Janet Fitch's Rules for Writers

Ten Rules for Writers - what writer could resist? And these rules by Janet Fitch are good, meaty ones. They're timely for me because I'm in the middle of three revision projects. First, I'm polishing the second Lexicon book, The Ice Castle. Second, I'm working on a rewrite of a YA fantasy called The Beechwood Flute. Last, I'm co-editing a multi-authored education book on formative assessment (assessing kids as they learn so you can keep adjusting instruction) for the Harvard Education Press. Although this last book is quite a different project from the other two, many of Fitch's comments are still relevant.

At least four of Fitch's rules operate at the level of the sentence. Write musical, unique sentences. Heighten your verbs. Vary sentence length. As for subordinate clauses, don't fear them. How do these work in writing fiction for children or in writing semi-academic non-fiction for adults?

When I began writing for middle grade students, my critique partners lectured me for using sentences that were too long. They guided me toward learning about readability measures, which depend heavily on sentence length and the number of syllables in words. Meekly, I shortened my sentences; but I also did some investigating on my own. I pulled from my shelves and checked out from the library an armful of past Newbery Award winners, and I examined their first pages. On virtually every one, I found at least one sentence that was twenty, thirty, even forty words long.

My conclusion? Trust your reader. Even a long sentence can be perfectly intelligible as long as it's well-constructed, and you can test its construction by reading it aloud. Variety in sentence length keeps a paragraph lively. Reading a book made up entirely of short sentences can be as comfortable as riding a small boat through short, choppy waves. Academic writing, on the other hand, can almost always benefit by variety by throwing in an occasional short sentence, which will startle the reader awake like a border collie darting among complacent sheep.

How about heightening verbs? Here conventional wisdom offers an odd contradiction, urging us to make our characters shuffle instead of go, stitch instead of make, and huddle instead of sit -- but we are never, NEVER to say exclaimed or muttered or joked instead of said.

As it happens, I agree with this stricture on dialogue tags other than said. They call attention to themselves; they disrupt story flow. Most of all, they betray the author's laziness. Lacking confidence that the dialog will speak for itself, establishing its own proper tone of voice, the author selects a fancy dialog tag as a way of passing crib notes to the reader. The dialog tag signals how the words should be said. A more diligent approach would be to try and lift the dialog itself to another level until it embodies the sarcasm, reluctance, or gentleness you want the words to carry.

That said, I have to admit that children, especially eager readers, like fancy dialog tags. They like harrumphed or whimpered or retorted icily. Especially in humorous writing, surely there's no harm in allowing the kids the fun of playing with unusual words. Part of what we're doing in writing for children is inviting them to cavort in the carnival of language. Can't we allow them some fluff, some cotton candy, on these early visits?

I'll have more to say about Fitch's other rules tomorrow.

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