We writers are always looking for the golden key, the one perfect piece of wisdom that will propel us from mundane to renowned. I suppose most pursuits, whether artistic, athletic, career-related, are filled with rules and advice. The shorter and pithier the better. Writing has plenty of them: Show, don’t tell. Never start a story with the main character waking up. Always capitalize the first word of a sentence. Just to name three off the top of my head.
But last weekend I saw a tweet cross my computer that just Pissed Me Off. It said: “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” And was attributed to Stephen King! Now I’m not here to cast aspersions on Mr. King. I credit him with being a formative influence on my writing style and I don’t mean to put words in his mouth, but I suspect that what he meant by the thesaurus bit is more along the lines of “don’t be pretentious” if you’re writing genre fiction. Which is a suggestion, not a rule.
And yet someone passed along this gem last weekend as if it was gospel. Seriously? Are we telling writers not to expand their vocabularies, to limit their language to the words they read in Harriet The Spy novels? To not make use of reference books or take the time to search for just the perfect word for a particular moment in the story? Am I only allowed to use the words I can pull from my ever-less-efficient brain at the moment my fingers are on the keyboard, better word bedamned? What ROT!
This is the trouble with Rules and their vile offspring Always/Never statements: they can paralyze a person. New writers especially. Someone who does what writers are wont do and simply sits down one day to write a story, only to be told “You mustn’t do this. You have to do that.” That person might not have the experience to know (to quote a famous Hollywood pirate) the rules are more like guidelines. And now we’ve put him in a box.
The best writing wisdom I know? “Just write.”
Get the rules crap out of the way. There are no rules. There might be hard-won wisdom. There might be guidelines that are time-tested and therefore worth paying attention to. (I AM a fan of punctuation at the end of a sentence.) But if you want to tell a story, go for it. Save the guidelines and conventions for later. For now, just write.