Writing Craft: Balancing Rules and Voice

by Jami Gold on March 16, 2017

in Writing Stuff

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Many aspects of writing are subjective, so we often need to discuss how to find the right balance. One reader’s too little can be another reader’s too much.

To that end, I’ve written and guest-hosted several posts about balancing different elements of our writing, such as balancing backstory, description, emotions, and plot obstacles, as well as how to balance our writing elements overall.

A recent comment on one of my older posts brought up another element that we also need to balance: the rules of writing versus our writing voice.

Specifically, Anne Kaelber asked:

“How do I balance between Margie’s anaphora and Jefferson’s echoing words?”

Anaphora is a rhetorical device, one of several taught by writing instructor Margie Lawson. Like many rhetorical devices, anaphora uses repetition to create an impact:

  • Anaphora: Repeating a word or phrase at the beginning of two or more phrases or sentences in a row:
    “He’d never believe her. He’d never trust her. He’d never love her again.”
  • Alliteration: Using words with similar beginning sounds close together:
    “Her heart hammered.”
  • Epistrophe: The opposite of anaphora, repeating the end of phrase:
    “She would die. He would die. They’d all die.”
  • Anadiplosis: Repeating the end of one sentence at the beginning of the next, as exemplified by Yoda:
    “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
  • Amplification: Repeating a word or phrase within a sentence while adding more detail:
    “Love—true love—is what brings us together today.”
  • Epizeuxis: Repeating one word to make it more important:
    “Our day at the beach was fun, fun, fun.”
  • Commoratio: Repeating an idea with different words:
    “She was doomed. Finished. Dead.”

Echoes are when we repeat the same word, sentence structure, or imagery/idea too many times, which was one of the top five problems Jefferson Smith found in his Immerse or Die challenge.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve had feedback point out when your characters grin or nod too many times on a page, so we understand some aspect of the rule about avoiding word echoes. Yet rhetorical devices are a great way to differentiate our voice.

How can we balance the rules of writing and the uniqueness of our voice? Let’s take a look…

Step #1: Understand the Reason for the Writing “Rule”

I put “rule” in quotes, because the rules we’re familiar with are usually more of guidelines than break-this-and-you’ll-fail rules. However, even as guidelines, they still exist for a reason.

Often, what creates the sense of lazy writing is when authors either don’t know a writing rule (such as littering commas about willy-nilly) or they break rules without thought of the cost. For example, one common writing rule is: avoid adverbs.

First of all, that’s a silly “rule” because a list of adverbs goes beyond the “-ly” ending words we tend to think of first. Adverbs also encompass words that describe when (after, before, tomorrow, etc.) and where (inside, outside, downstairs, there, etc.). In other words, we couldn’t write a story without adverbs. *smile*

That said, the “rule” is useful for reminding us to be cautious with how adverbs—those that end with an “-ly” such as: quickly, carefully, quietly, etc.

In many cases, those verb-adverb combinations could be replaced with a stronger verb that encompasses both ideas:

  • walked quickly vs. rushed
  • sneaked carefully vs. tiptoed
  • said quietly vs. whispered

As long as we understand the reason for the rule, we could make a conscious decision to keep an -ly adverb. Maybe we can’t think of a stronger verb that fits, or maybe we like the rhythm better with the adverb.

Writing “Rule”: Avoid Echoes

In the case of echoes, Jefferson Smith pointed out why the “rule” exists. Repeating words, sentence structures, or ideas/imagery too many times (especially too close together) tends to call attention to itself.

Several sentences too close together all starting with “But” will be noticeable. Ditto for repeating gesture crutches, such as nodding, grinning, frowning, sighing, smiling, etc. Unintended alliteration is similarly bad, as it can be distracting.

“Calling attention to itself” can take other forms as well. Several sentences in a row all following the same structure can “sound” repetitive, rhythm-wise. For example:

  • Compound sentences (such as “x, but y.”):
    She punched, but he ducked. Then she threw a right hook, but he weaved.
  • Introductory phrases/clauses:
    After she was done, she… As her fate unraveled, she… In case she lost, she…

Using the same description or imagery every time an idea is mentioned in the story also screams lazy writing. If we’re describing our heroine’s hair in multiple scenes, the descriptions should be different each time and not use the same words, such as “her cornsilk tresses.”

(True story: One author I’ve read uses the same phrases to describe every one of their heroines in every book, right down to the words describing their slim waists. That’s lazy writing.)

Step #2: Decide Whether the “Rule” Applies

Only we know the story we want to write. We have to find the right approach for our voice, genre, characters, tone, and style—for our story.

Most “rules” aren’t an always/never statement. As I mentioned above, in the right situation, we could come up with reasons to include adverbs. In other words, it’s okay to know the reason for a rule and consciously decide that our reason to ignore the rule supersedes the original reasoning.

For example, we might know that clichés weaken writing. However, we might choose to have a character speak in clichés anyway because we want the reader’s impression to be that the character is a bit cliché themselves.

On the other hand, we wouldn’t want to break a writing rule about avoiding information dumps if our goal was to create a faster pace. Similarly, we wouldn’t want to break a writing rule about using a deep point of view if our goal was to make our readers feel like the story was happening to them. The point is to match our choices with our goals.

If we’re more successful at creating the reader impression we want by breaking a rule than by following it, we’d be smart to break that rule. If we followed every rule—from avoiding sentence fragments to never including extraneous words—we’d strangle our voice.

Writing Voice: Use Rhetorical Devices

That brings us to some of the reasons why we’d ignore the “rule” against creating echoes. We might want to call attention to a section of our writing.

We might decide the repetition is good for:

  • our voice
  • our character’s voice
  • emotional impact
  • rhythm, etc.

Sometimes we want alliteration or one of the other rhetorical devices. Or maybe we want to make an element of our story seem more important. Writing a certain way on purpose isn’t a problem.

There’s nothing wrong with repeating an element of our writing if we decide it creates the emphasis we want. The key is to consciously make that decision. Writing with purpose is how we avoid the mistakes of lazy writing.

Step #3: Decide for Each Instance Separately

Just because we decide to break a rule in one section of our story doesn’t mean we should break it every time. Including an adverb in a specific sentence for rhythm doesn’t change the fact that adverbs often are a sign of lazy writing, so we shouldn’t start keeping every adverb from our draft.

Just because sentence fragments can be used in well-crafted writing doesn’t mean every sentence should be a fragment. We need to analyze each occurrence to decide if it’s meeting our goals for reader impression.

Balancing Writing Rules and Writing Voice

In the case of repetitive words or phrases, such as what Anne asked about, we need to decide whether the repetition helps or hurts our writing. Repetition calls attention to itself, so if we’re trying to emphasize something, repetition might be the perfect technique—sometimes.

Even when we have a great reason, we still don’t want to overdo it. I’ve mentioned before that I have to cut several anaphora examples from every story because it’s my favorite technique. *smile*

Anaphora works well for emphasizing emotional impact. So if we’re saving that technique for when we really need extra emotional oomph (no more than a few times per novel), we’re probably in the clear.

On the other hand, if you’re like me and tend to include anaphora every chapter? Well… Some of those will have to go. *grin*

Finding the Right Balance between Writing Rules and Voice

The trick is to think about our goals for reader impression and ensure our voice techniques accomplish what we want. As with so many aspects of writing, we likely won’t get the balance right during drafting, and that’s okay.

For some writing rules that we struggle with in edits, we might be better off drilling into ourselves to try to follow the rule right from our first draft. Or we might need extra help from our editor to get it right.

For other rules, we might find it easier to fix the issues later. As an example, it’s often easier for me to cut repetition than to add voice, so my best bet is to encourage my voice as much as possible during drafting and worry about the right balance with writing rules later.

Either way, we can question our reasons, decide for each instance, and use feedback from our beta readers and editors to find the right balance for the story we want to tell. The best story will flow naturally, without our voice feeling like we’re trying to hard or like we’re suffocating our unique style. *smile*

Have you ever felt like the writing “rules” restrained your voice? What did you decide to do—follow the rule or your voice? What rules do you think shouldn’t be broken? What rules do you tend to break? How have you found the right balance between rules and voice?

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15 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Julie Glover March 16, 2017 at 1:18 pm

This is excellent treatment of the subject, Jami. And I’ll just say from the copy editor’s viewpoint, most of the time I can tell a difference between when the author purposely used a word in repetition for effect and when they threw in too many instances of a favored word. A quality critique partner can also help you identify which words you tend to echo or techniques you overuse. I know you’ve written some great posts about finding good critique partners and editors as well!

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Jami Gold March 16, 2017 at 6:40 pm

Hi Julie,

Yes, when I first started writing, I’d heard about how a confident voice can do so much for a story, and I had no idea how to get that confidence across in my writing. But with more experience (and doing so much beta reading, editing, contest judging, etc.), I now see how a confident, purposeful voice really does make itself known. 🙂

That said, we can all use more feedback about our writing tics. Just because we’re purposeful doesn’t mean we’re exempt from the unconscious tics that can plague us all. LOL! Thanks for sharing your insights!

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Sieran March 16, 2017 at 2:27 pm

Hey Jami! I’ve often heard of the advice: “Don’t break a rule unless you understand why it exists.” I find that my personal philosophy is: “Don’t FOLLOW a rule unless you understand why it exists.”

But seriously, there are some popular “rules” in our writing community that are frankly quite nonsensical to me, and so I never follow them. (I won’t mention which rules they are, because I don’t want to offend anyone.) Of course there will be people who won’t appreciate my total disregard for those particular rules, but that’s too bad. *Shrugs* At the core, I’m just unwilling to follow a rule that doesn’t make any sense to me!

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Jami Gold March 16, 2017 at 6:37 pm

Hi Sieran,

LOL! In your case, we’ve discovered so many exceptions based on English vs. Chinese literature that many of the rules shouldn’t apply to you and your writing. So your approach of not following a rule unless you know why it exists (and therefor can check if it applies to your style of writing) makes a fair amount of sense. 😀 Thanks for the comment!

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Sieran March 17, 2017 at 3:47 pm

*After reading the other comments*

About the confident and purposeful voice, I feel that this is especially important for humor and comedy writing! I think readers want to hear from a narrator who is full of confidence and flair whilst making them laugh. Though there are exceptions, like the first person narrator character who is self-deprecating but who says a lot of funny things. Having a strong voice seems particularly important in writing comedy. 🙂

For the repetition thing, nowadays, I find that I’m less bothered by word repetitions, but more bothered by IDEA repetitions. E.g. I’ve mentioned X’s sadness, jealousy, and guilt over his jealousy a few times already that the reader should get it. Even though I use different words to express his jealousy every time, it still feels repetitive, albeit that it’s realistic that these thoughts would become obsessive to him. But realism can be tedious to read sometimes. So I’m wondering how I should convey his persistent jealousy without sounding repetitive…Yet, if I strip out too many jealousy descriptions, readers might misunderstand and think he’s not jealous anymore! It’s a tough balance to strike.

At the same time, I wonder if I’m being too demanding sometimes. There were some instances where I already felt that an idea was repetitive after it was mentioned for just the SECOND time….What? Do I seriously expect myself to mention everything only once? What if readers don’t catch it (or remember it) the first time around? Sigh. Well, I believe I’ll figure something out eventually.

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Maurine March 16, 2017 at 4:12 pm

As with a lot of things, I think using (and breaking) rules in moderation is no problem. I know you probably won’t agree with me, but if you eliminate adverbs for the most part, you end up with writing that sounds like a Dick and Jane Primary Reader. Very elementary and dry reading.

I don’t see how using information dumps can create faster pace. To me it slows it way down. Also, I’ve never heard the rule about not using deep point of view. Or did I misunderstand? Can you elaborate on those two or point me to the source?

For the most part I agree with you. We should use different techniques and tools judiciously. But my experience has been that my voice suffers if I follow certain rules (especially the no fragments “rule”) and not break it but a few times in a whole book. I’ve never had any complaints from my beta readers when I consistently break this rule. I also break the no-deep-pov “rule,” too, if there is such a thing. AND the don’t-start-a-sentence-with-a-conjunction “rule” (which actually doesn’t really exist–someone made it up). The only rules I think shouldn’t be broken are the ones that enable the meaning of what we write to be clear to the reader.

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Jami Gold March 16, 2017 at 6:34 pm

Hi Maurine,

I could have been clearer on those two points, but I was trying to say the opposite of what you understood: that you shouldn’t break those rules about avoiding (and therefore use info dumps or shallow POV) if you wanted those goals of faster pace or more immediate. Thanks for letting me clarify that. 🙂

As for the rest… Yes, I make sure the adverbs I use are necessary/helpful to the story, but I haven’t been known to go out of my way to avoid them. LOL!

Like you, I don’t shy from using fragments either. And…I start a lot of sentences with conjunctions too. 😉

As I said at the end, I tend to let my voice have free reign during drafting, and then during editing I’ll question whether my goals are met just as well (or even better) without the rule breaking. 😀 Thanks for the comment!

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Maurine March 16, 2017 at 10:06 pm

Thank you for clarifying that. I’ve been known to get things mixed up.

Actually my take from your post here is that with experience we learn to discern when it’s okay to break “rules” and when to follow them, always keeping in mind how our unique voice sounds and not sacrificing it to a rule we’re told we have to keep.

Good post. As always I learn much from your blog. Thanks for doing this.

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Jami Gold March 16, 2017 at 11:58 pm

Hi Maurine,

Exactly! Our story and storytelling is more important, and we shouldn’t sacrifice those just for the sake of “rules.” 😀 Glad I could help!

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Emma Burcart March 17, 2017 at 6:19 am

Posts like this are why I love your blog! Thank you for explaining clearly why we can (and even sometimes should) break writing rules. I am particularly grateful that you mentioned rhythm, because that is one of my top priorities in writing. So when I get feedback from a beta reader (who is not a good fit for me) to cut a word, based on a rule, when I want want it for rhythm, I find myself getting frustrated. Maybe now I’ll just point my writing friends to this post. I really appreciate that you clarified the difference between purposeful repetition and redundancy (although the term echo bumped me at first because in the world of literary fiction echo is a positive term) as well. It seems easy to see the difference as a reader, but it is so important to be clear on the difference before/when we are writing. This helped me solidify that difference. You always make me think about what I am doing as a writer, and why. Thank you for that. I don’t comment often, but I read regularly because it is pretty remarkable to find a blog like that this continues to be such a deep and new learning experience over a long period of time.

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Jami Gold March 17, 2017 at 10:31 am

Hi Emma

Aww, thank you for all the kind words! 🙂

Like you, I’m a huge fan of rhythm, and many (or even most?) of the times I decide to keep a certain wording over the advice of feedback, it’s because I like the rhythm better that way. I think the point is that we listen to the feedback and have a conscious reason for rejecting it. That choice is about me and my voice, so I don’t need to justify my decision to them.

Yes, you’re right that echo is used for a couple of different purposes in regards to writing. Just the other month, I wrote about how echoes can be good, but as you said, this bad kind of echo is more about redundancy. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

(And I fixed that extra word for you too. 🙂 )

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Emma Burcart March 17, 2017 at 12:57 pm

Yes! I remember that post. It was so good. And probably why this other use of the word echo confused me. It is the positive use that I am more familiar with. And am thinking about more since that post…

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Jami Gold March 17, 2017 at 1:50 pm

Hi Emma,

Thanks for bringing up the other ways the word is used! It’s good you helped clarify “echo” for other readers. 😀

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Anne Kaelber March 24, 2017 at 6:45 pm

Jami,

I’m tickled my comment instigated this post. It is *exactly* what I needed, for my question. 🙂 Bonus: there are some words in your post I have never seen before — cool!

My current WIP is in the 2nd draft stage. That’s a bit of a misnomer, as I have to re-write a significant portion of it. I’ve changed the POV to first person and I’m now telling it in present tense. Both are BIG changes for me. But, it’s really helped me to get “into character” for my protagonist. In fact, the genesis of this change came from my notes, where suddenly Indigo was the one writing. It was a journal entry which really let me see the true Indigo. (This is the same project where I asked you about rape scenes, which the new plot line won’t have at all. Yay!)

Thank you, from the bottom of my little writer’s heart, for this post, this blog. Writing can be a very lonely craft, especially struggling as I am to develop my writing ‘support crew’. You make it less so. 🙂

Anne.

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