Ed’s Casual Friday: Safire Rules, and so are you.

William Safire
William Safire on language

Today, in an effort to pad the length of my Friday column, I will be reproducing NY Times political / language columnist William Safire‘s Rules for Writers. Whoops, I mean I’m doing it to make a point…yeah.

  • Remember to never split an infinitive.
  • The passive voice should never be used.
  • Do not put statements in the negative form.
  • Verbs have to agree with their subjects.
  • Proofread carefully to see if you words out.
  • If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.
  • A writer must not shift your point of view.
  • And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. (Remember,
    too, a preposition is a terrible word to end a sentence with.)
  • Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!
  • Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long
    sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
  • Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
  • If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking
    verb is.
  • Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
  • Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
  • Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with
    singular nouns in their writing.
  • Always pick on the correct idiom.
  • The adverb always follows the verb.
  • Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague; seek
    viable alternatives.

You will no doubt have noticed that the honorable Mr. Safire of course violated every rule as he laid it down. If you didn’t notice that, just go sit quietly in the corner and I’ll call your parents to come pick you up. And don’t touch anything.

So, aside from just dogging my column this week, what’s the point I am trying to make here? Simply this: As a writer, you are going to encounter multifarious and munificent rules for each and every writing occasion. Somebody famous out there has already declared the inviolable law of what a writer is supposed to do at any moment, from Twain to Orwell to Stephen King. And any number of helpful pedants are waiting eagerly to opine up in your grill with some rule they picked up somewhere, detailing the way it is supposed to be done.

My advice? Learn the rules, then ignore ‘em when you need to. There is such a thing as style, which Twain, Orwell, King, and Safire have in spades, and one of the ways it is conveyed is through the conscious violation of any and all writing “rules” whenever it serves a purpose. That is a standard worth aiming for. These guys don’t break rules because they don’t know them, and they don’t do it inconsistently or from sloppiness. They do it to make a point, or because it works for a story. Or, as Orwell himself states at the end of his own list of writing rules:  “Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.”

Do what you have to do because it’s what you have to do, but not because you don’t know any better. This isn’t paint-by-numbers, and they call them “novels” for a reason.


As always in closing, an excerpt from a real one-star review, of a real book, by a real reader. Obviously, I had to hit Safire today. 😉

“Dear god, this was tedious.”

Scandalmonger by William Safire


M. Edward McNally is the author of the Norothian Cycle books: The Sable City, Death of a Kingdom, and The Wind from Miilark, and multiple free short story volumes titled Eddie’s Shorts. He has been writing for twenty of the last thirty years and does not recommend the ten year spell of writer’s block in the middle. Ed is a contributor at Indies Unlimited (IU Bio Page) and tilts at his own windmills over at http://sablecity.wordpress.com/

Author: M. Edward McNally

Epic fantasy author M. Edward McNally is a North Carolinian of Irish/Mexican extraction. He has a Masters in English Lit from ISU and Russian/East European History from ASU. He grew up mostly in the Midwest along I-35 northbound (KS, IA, MN), and now resides in the scrub brush surrounding Phoenix AZ, where the scorpions and javelinas play. Learn more about Ed at his blog, and his Amazon author page.

16 thoughts on “Ed’s Casual Friday: Safire Rules, and so are you.”

  1. Thanks, Ed! Great post! Safire's column was required reading in my advertising and journalism classes, and the habit stuck. No one has been able to fill the hole he left in the Times. Break the stupid rules. When it fits. And when it works!

  2. Thanks Ed.

    I used to teach English – could have done with this set of rules pinned up on the classroom wall. (Along with 'no dozing off when teacher is talking'.)

  3. "Do what you have to do because it’s what you have to do, but not because you don’t know any better." Could not agree more. Seems Lin does, too, if I read him correctly. (ouch, an adverb).

      1. I've decided to coin the word "adverbly" just to piss off the rulebound. 😉

        "And this annoyingly anarchic sentence was introduced adverbly."

  4. Pretty sure I break the rules all the time. However, (OK, I'll not use But) when is all said and done, if it reads smoothly and gets the point across, I don't think it could be that bad.

  5. Use of the English passive varies with writing style and field. Some style sheets discourage use of passive voice,[2] while others encourage it.[3] Although some purveyors of usage advice, including George Orwell (see Politics and the English Language, 1946) and William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White (see The Elements of Style, 1919) discourage the English passive, its usefulness is recognized in cases where the theme (receiver of the action) is more important than the agent.[4]

    source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_passive_voic

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