Writing Rules: The Pirate Code

When you start looking for tips on how to write, the internet has no shortage of supply. You can spend hours reading through blog posts, articles and pins listing all the rules you need to follow to write well. And these aren’t just the basics of good grammar and proper spelling, which you probably learned at school, these are the laws of fine literature and engaging prose. Never end a sentence with a preposition, we’re instructed. Avoid adverbs. Don’t use the passive voice. Never begin by describing the weather. Don’t switch points of view. And don’t abbreviate.

But do you need to follow these rules, really? I ask this because some of my favourite authors don’t. J.K.Rowling famously uses a plethora of adverbs in her Harry Potter novels. Once someone pointed this out to me I couldn’t un-notice it! Yes, most lines of dialogue seem to be followed by X said darkly/coolly/shrilly/murderously. And yes, there might have been other ways to convey these things. But at the end of the day, does it spoil my enjoyment of some of my favourite books from my teenage years? No, not at all. Rowling is an excellent storyteller, and it would take more than a generous dusting of adverbs to detract from that.

I remember the first time I read Northanger Abbey. This is probably my second favourite of Austen’s novels, but ranking them in order feels as cruel and unnecessary as choosing who your favourite friends are. Brace yourselves, in case you haven’t come across this before: Northanger Abbey contains a split infinitive. There, I said it. Jane Austen breaks one of the cardinal rules of good writing. Maybe we should recall all her books from print and burn them, just to make sure no one else picks up bad habits.

I appreciate the rules of how to write well. There’s a point to each one of them existing. But I’ve come to the conclusion that they are to be treated like the pirate code in Pirates of the Caribbean. The code, Captain Barbossa tells us, is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules. Worth having, extremely useful, but open to negotiation. Especially if there’s rum involved.


“I can see we’re not going to reach an agreement on Oxford commas today.”


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