Most of writing is pretty subjective. What styles we use, adjectives we choose, the rhythms and phrasing—they all depend on the author’s voice.
That said, there are a few things we can all agree are pretty awful no matter who writes them. Not with characterization or plotting or world-building, but with the building blocks we all use: the words and sentences themselves.
Without further ado, I give you the Ten Commandments of Writing.
ONE: Thou shalt not compare food to orgasms. If your protagonist is eating a meal and you feel the need to remark upon how delightful it is, they shall neither moan nor grunt in pleasure. They should not swirl their food around in rapture, and any sucking is to be kept to a minimum.
In short, whatever you indulge in with your food in your time, the reader should not, at any point, mistake a meal scene for an erotic interlude.
TWO: Thou shalt not describe characters’ features by the colors of food. Your Black people are not chocolate, your White people are not mushrooms. Nobody has butterscotch eyes, and very few have hair the color of corn, especially not the corn I always think of when I hear that description, which is GMO food and therefore bright Microsoft Paint yellow.
Lips are not naturally the color of cherries: any cherries, or any lips. If your only way of depicting people’s skin relies on describing the amount of milk in a cup of coffee, do the world a favor and use the HTML tag instead; it’s less offensive.
THREE: Thou shalt not use quirky dialogue tags more than once a novel. Your characters get one quipped, one segued, one parsed, and one harrumphed. Not each; per work.
Spread them out. Use them all in the same scene and woe unto you, for you shall surely reap the seeds of an audience laughing at you.
FOUR: Thou shalt not use the word meaty. Ever. Even meat is not meaty; that flavor is called umami, or perhaps savory. And why is your character describing someone’s hands as meaty? Are they planning to eat them?
FIVE: Thou shalt not deliberately gross out readers. Once a reader has reached an age where promises of boogers no longer act as an incentive to pick up a book, you can safely assume that your audience does not wish to respond to your descriptions with, “Oh yuck, yuck, yuck, flip the page.”
Sometimes characters need to puke and we need to be graphic, or someone does, in fact, get disemboweled, but there are ways and ways. You’re a writer; find them. If the only way you can make your antagonist seem evil is to call them fleshy and pulsing and spend three paragraphs describing their stench, perhaps it’s time to reexamine your plot.
SIX: Thou shalt not drop the Gs for an entire novel. Often it is desirable to depict a character’s dialect; sometimes, it is even prudent to write some words phonetically to give the readers an understanding of the cultural situation. It is never necessary to have a character droppin’ their flippin’ g’s the entire bleedin’ book. One character, one scene. That’s all you get.
SEVEN: Thou shalt not force your readers to consult a dictionary. If a word is unusual—and you’ll know it’s unusual when you see it—you will use it in a way such that most readers can guess the meaning in context. This goes for slang, for historical terms, for strange scientific bits you felt necessary to include. Go contextual or go home.
Ditto for the pantone chart. Describing strange colors is, in fact, the correct time to compare things to food. Few know what color amaranth is, but we all know what shade rotting strawberries turn.
EIGHT: Thou shalt not overly focus on female beauty. One sex is not invisible; the other is not a parade for your characters to ogle. If your women are sexy or dumpy, your men had better also be arousing or fat. If you describe her knockers, grace the reader with a description of his buttocks. Likewise, it is not a crime for a woman to be un-pretty or old, and it is not the reason she’s an antagonist.
Many a man is pretty in the face. Many a woman is handsome without it being a covert insult. If you can’t handle that, keep your descriptions sparse.
NINE: Thou shalt make mindful metaphors. Your figurative speech is included to help clarify the situation, not to show off that you know the word somniferous. If a simile doesn’t illuminate what’s happening, don’t include it. It doesn’t make you look clever, it makes readers realize that actually they don’t know what a thousand-year-old stench smells like because wouldn’t all the bacteria die after a couple hundred?
Your metaphors should also not alliterate. “Poetic” is a word critics love and readers avoid like yellow snow at the sledding hill.
TEN: Thou shalt not refer to people by their hair color. The blonde has more features than her hair follicles, the brunette is shorthand for “my sentence structure is lacking.” Even if you have declined to tell your readers a character’s name, surely this person has has a titles or profession. They are more than their skin color or relative attractiveness.
If you must resort to hair, go by style. The grey-haired woman may be a large range of anyone, the woman with gray dreadlocks has a story.
And there we have it: S. Hunter Nisbet’s Ten Commandments of Writing. They are harsh, yet just. While for any of these rules you can find an exceptional novel that’s done it well, they are just that: exceptions. As a rule, these ten things are to be avoided at all costs.
Or so help me, I’ll go back up that mountain and find another slab of rock to throw at you.
Do you have any writing base rules you absolutely follow? How about tropes that crop up often enough to drive you nuts? Want to lose an argument against me? Comment below and let us know your thoughts!
If you enjoyed this post, you might also find my four-part series on editing to be helpful.
Thanks for reading!
[Photo credit to Councelling on Pixabay, public domain.]