Rules for Writing – Rule #8 – Thou Shalt Know When to Trust Thy Self

In the film When Harry Met Sally (still the only Romantic Comedy that matters), the character of Sally explains how she is decidedly not high-maintenance by referring to herself as simply ‘wanting things the way she wants them.’

That’s easy enough to understand, isn’t it?

As writers we are, alas, always learning. We never ‘get there’ and every project set before us presents us with challenges unique and particular to the project. Added to that is the complication that we need feedback from others before we release our ‘completed’ projects into the readership wilds. These notes can be high-level and conceptual, or these notes can be minute, specific, nit-picky, painfully on-point.

Recent New Yorker pieces by John McPhee (Writer Extraordinaire) and Mary Norris (Comma Queen) instruct the writer on how to conduct oneself when constructing works amidst the critical flood-plane 

Style, which flows from big concept down to comma placement, from blueprint to individual nail as it were, must be alternatively unique and standard. We must uphold, and we must innovate. This is no less true of the writers as it is of those who edit our work.

In Norris’ words: ‘One of the things I like about my job is that it draws on the entire person: not just your knowledge of grammar and punctuation and usage and foreign languages and literature but also your experience of travel, gardening, shipping, singing, plumbing, Catholicism, Midwesternism, mozzarella, the A train, New Jersey.’

What’s fascinating is the implicit lesson that there is a certain amount of subjectivity when discussing style and grammar. There are rules. And then are…rules. Some are meant to be adhered to and some are meant to be challenged, fought against, broken.

For that latter category, the writer has to stand firm, to be high maintenance, and declare – I want it this way because I want it this way.

It’s not always the most advisable or defendable stance, mind you. I learned from my mentor Richard Cortez Day that consensus is important. If one person tells you a description is lazy or doesn’t make sense, you take note, but if five people tell you the same, you revise. Most of the time—probably 98 or 99 percent of the time—you should take the feedback your beta-readers and trusted opinion-givers provide and make the changes they offer.

But there are times to push back. There are instances when you the writer—because you are uniquely you and you think of things the way you think of them—wants it the way you want it.

High-maintenance? Of course. We're writers.