the 90% rule

following yesterday’s post about writing workshops, there was some discussion, mainly at other venues, about the value of writers’ circles and crit groups in general. There was some talk about writing ‘rules’ as taught in creative writing courses, and whether or not they have any merit.

I adhere to the 90% rule, which is something I’ve just made up, and so this post comes with a few caveats:

– First of all, before you progress to reading a few examples below, make sure you swallow your coffee/wine and put down your cup. I will not be sued for the price of a new keyboard.

– Secondly, I am an expert at plucking figures out of thin air, and so the 90% rule has no scientific basis that it is in fact not the 91% or 89% rule.

Right, we got that out of the way. Now what about writing rules? Those ones where people tell you never to use adverbs, or never to start a story with a dream, and things like that. The discussion this morning centred around said-bookisms, those pesky words used instead of said. Here are a few examples offered by my Facebook network:

“Look at the mess you’ve made,” she spat. (thanks to Robb Grindstaff)

“Krikey!” I ejaculated as the milk machine overflowed. (thanks to M. Cid d’Angelo)

“I’m sorry,” he apologised. (thanks to Shayne Parkinson)

Stopped laughing yet? I’ve seen this sort of stuff in published books, as well as the occasions where every speech tag has a said-bookism. Retorted, opined, hissed, growled, etc etc.

What happens here is that I’m distracted. I’m laughing my head off where there is not humour intended, and I’m looking for what the next crafty said-bookism is going to be. Not good unless you intended to take the mickey.

Ah, but there is a rule that says that you should never use a tag other than ‘said’. Purists jump even on ‘asked’ and ‘shouted’. That is, of course, where it gets ridiculous and people start shoutng that the rules are crap and they are meant to be broken.

The way I see things, the rules were never rules in the first place. They were guidelines to avoid the sort of idiocy quoted above (I could find some equally hilarious examples for adverbs). A slightly more experienced writer understands that. The slightly more experienced writer also understands that the ‘rules’ are best adhered to most of the time, but no one’s going to jump if you break a guideline occasionally.

These are my guidelines:

– Stick to 90% of the rules 90% of the time, and no one will complain too much
– Avoid breaking any rules in the first few paragraphs unless you’re hideously famous
– If you break a writing guideline, and a few people comment on it, don’t be defensive about it being your right to break rules. Obviously it was an instance where your rule-breaking didn’t work out for whatever reason. Just shrug and change it.


  1. Arrrh, they be good guidelines, lass (hey, it’s Talk Like a Pirate Day soon!)

    That “not in the first few paragraphs” is one I’m specially attached to. If a reader’s had his/her attention held sufficiently to get a fair way into the book, you have the sort of partnership that allows you to stretch the guidelines. In a way it’s a part of the “willing suspension of disbelief” that allows fiction to work at all.

    If it distracts, it detracts.

  2. a reader rarely notices the “said” attribution, so there is no need to change it to something else.

    having said that, I think a lot of the time dialogue is unnecessarily attributed with “said”, because it is obvious who is speaking.

  3. There is only one thing worse than a piece of dialogue in which every tag has a said-bookism: a piece of dialogue where every line has a ‘said’ tag! Honestly, ‘ve seen that once and it drove me nuts. The best writers vary said-tags with action tags, or no tags at all.

  4. I see it more as a warning than a rule. Basically, anything that’s considered a writing “rule” is to me a red flag. It says – Mess too much with this convention and people are going to notice. If they notice, it better be because you’ve made a better job of it than conventional writers.

  5. that’s exactly what I mean. They’re guidelines for producing a piece of fiction that’s not going to piss too many people off

  6. Love this post. I’ve always tried to correct people (gently) when they talk about writing rules. They are guidelines for the technical craft of writing, not rules, and have nothing to do with the creativity of the story, just the craft of putting the words on the page in a way that helps convey the story to the reader without the distractions of bad writing. Rules/guidelines won’t make your writing great, but help to keep it from being bad. And one rule, and this is a rule – Never pay attention to a rule that uses the word never or always. Always change that rule to say “usually.”

  7. I have just as much of a problem with people who adhere slavishly to these principles of writing as I do with people who seem to think they’re exempt (let’s not mention any names, shall we?).
    Adverbs, passive tense, participial phrases, etc developed in the language for a purpose, and denying them completely means that your wortk is missing out on that purpose, and that you are twisting your sentences for no good reason other than the belief that if you omit all passive structures from your writing, you will be accepted by an agent.
    It comes to a shock to many people that this is not how it works. IMO, prose technique is a LOT less important than story, emotion and the painting of images with words.

  8. Exactly. If editing or critiquing something, and every noun has three adjectives to describe it, and every verb has an adverb, and every sentence contains a form of “to be” verb, and every sentence starts with the word “I,” it’s seriously flawed. So I’ll mark all of those and say “stop it,” and hopefully give some examples of how to rewrite a sentence to avoid those glitches. But that doesn’t mean never ever use an adverb, adjective, to be, or I. Unless you’re writing poetry, you really don’t want the reader to notice the writing, you want to them to get absorbed by the story and the believable characters. I suppose even in poetry, you want the reader to feel the emotion or visualize the image, not just notice the clever way with words, but I’m not a poet, so I shouldn’t comment on that anyway.

  9. I write a lot of narrative poetry, and if there is dialogue, I only ever use “said” or “asked.” (And asked is rare.)

  10. Patty, I agree with what you opined earlier 🙂 : “There is only one thing worse than a piece of dialogue in which every tag has a said-bookism: a piece of dialogue where every line has a ’said’ tag!”

    If the diaolgue is only occasionally puncturing the action that’s fine, but when a true conversation begins, writers should have the courage to dispense with ‘said’ tags altogether. Readers are generally clever enough to keep up with who’s saying what…

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