If you keep an eye on the fiction world last week, you may have heard that Jonathan Franzen, author of Purity, The Corrections, and Freedom, published 10 rules for novelists at LitHub. It’s an excerpt on his new collection of essays, The End of the End of the Earth.
But why would marketers care? Because we’re often charged with storytelling and gaining reader trust. Good writing and storytelling advice can be a godsend. A list of rules from a famous author could be the push we need.
The problem is that the list is a collection of personal preferences presented as absolute rules. They might work for Franzen, but would they work for you?
- The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.
- Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.
- Never use the word then as a conjunction – we have and for this purpose. Substituting then is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many ands on the page.
- Write in third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.
- When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
- The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.
- You see more sitting still than chasing after.
- It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.
- Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.
- You have to love before you can be relentless.
Separating Out the Chaff
We can immediately throw out rules 2, 5, 6, and 8, as they apply strictly to fiction. Unless you’re writing fiction for your company, these won’t apply to you.
We can also throw out rule 4, because it basically says to do X unless you do Y. Without guidance on why the third person is preferable except, knowing when it isn’t preferable is impossible.
But what about the rest?
Gathering the Wheat
Though Franzen breaks it with this list, the first rule is excellent for marketers. Our goal with any copy is to gain the reader’s trust. You won’t get that picking a fight or preventing your audience from participating in the conversation.
Rule 3 outlaws using then as a coordinating conjunction—a word that joins two independent clauses together, such as and and or. If you’re following grammar strictly, then Franzen is correct: you should use and instead.
However, we often use then in place of and in casual speaking and writing. If you’re looking for a conversational tone, using then as a coordinating conjunction could help—as long as you don’t overdo it.
Rule 7 is about process. Where do you get your ideas from? Do you need to sit and think? Do you need to get out and talk to a lot of people? If Franzen needs to sit down and think, good for him for recognizing that. But it’s not a universal law. Whatever your method is for generating ideas, if it works, stick with it.
Rule 9 takes a whack at verbs. Who decides which verbs are interesting? Why does Franzen dislike “interesting” verbs?
Verbs are the heart of the sentence. They provide the action or emotion. Precise word choice is always better than trying to determine whether a word is “interesting.” Does the verb say what you want to say? Does it create the desired mental image?
If you really want to know how to use verbs, check out Constance Hale’s Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch. The book reveals how verbs power sentences and how you can better control that power to do make the sentence do what you want.
The last rule, “You have to love before you can be relentless,” is just rhetoric. You need energy to be relentless, certainly. You need a strong motivator. Love could be it: love for storytelling, love for how your company can change the world, love for reaching your business and personal goals. But your motivator could equally be a negative emotion, like fear, such as fear of losing your job because your writing doesn’t meet your business goals.
Finding the Hidden Nutrition
Most of Franzen’s list is, frankly, poppycock. But there are two powerful lessons we marketers can learn from it.
First, precision is important. The world is rarely absolute, and writing even less so. When you use words that are “close enough,” you invite others to dismiss you or pick your advice apart.
Second—and this is wonderful, really—you can get people talking about you by being controversial. As the BBC pointed out, people took to Twitter to both criticized and defended Franzen’s list—and Franzen isn’t even on Twitter! The list won attention that Franzen didn’t actively seek. The audience did it for him.
You may not learn a lot from Franzen’s writing rules, but how he gets his message spread, even by those who criticize him? That’s worth paying attention to.