Friday, December 18, 2009

Rules for writers

I happened to catch Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac" segment on NPR yesterday. It was William Safire's birthday and Keillor was talking about Safire's rules for writers:

1. Never split an infinitive.

2. Never use passive voice.

3. Avoid cliches like the plague!

That last one made me laugh out loud. I had heard or read these rules before, but had forgotten them and had forgotten about Safire's tongue-in-cheek wit.

Most writers, I think, learn rules similar to these and try to apply them with greater or lesser success to the actual craft of writing. But who can really claim to have never split an infinitive or used the passive voice? And what would our language be without its cliches?

Come to think of it, the ultimate passive voice statement - "To be or not to be" - is also something of a cliche in itself. But then the immortal Shakespeare could hardly be bothered by rules concocted by mere mortals, especially one who lived four hundred years after him.

In fact many of the aphorisms that have become cliches in our language had their birth from Shakespeare's pen and the language is the richer for them.

Safire's point though, I think, was to avoid triteness and the commonplace in one's writing and to adhere to the basic rules of grammar. They exist for good reasons.

Each writer should seek his/her own unique voice and point of view. We certainly can't all be Shakespeares or even Safires, but we can be our authentic selves. That is something that nobody else can do.

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