A long, long time ago, I posted something about how to find and ferret out the dreaded curse of passive voice in your work. Passive voice is one of those things where, in general, less is more. In general, if you can eliminate passive voice your work, in general, will feel tighter when people read it. It’s the same thing with eliminating adverbs and adjectives. In general, if you follow those “rules” your work will be better than if you don’t.
But with every single rule in writing, there’s a big, shiny asterisk the size of Stephen King’s bank account, followed by the words unless it works.
For instance, just two sentences after I wrote “it’s the same thing with eliminating adverbs and adjectives,” I purposely, with malice aforethought, used the adjectives big and shiny. And they worked. So did the adverb purposely in the previous sentence. In fact, purposely was necessary to get the meaning of the sentence across.
That’s where your judgement comes in. The rules, such as they are, are rules for a reason. They’re there so you can understand what–in general–makes some writing better than other writing. In general, a boatload of passive voice in your writing is not as good as a smidgen of passive voice in your writing. The fact that author X had a boatload of passive voice and is recognized as a giant in the field isn’t proof that the supposed rule is, in the words of the great Sherman Potter, “horse hockey!”
In general, you should use contractions in your dialog. However, Henry Standing Bear in the Longmire series doesn’t. Would this blog presume to tell Craig Johnson that he’s wrong? Nope. It works–and his success (and that fact that he’s got a televisions series based on his books) speaks for itself. Would this blog presume to tell Robert Parker’s estate that he used dialog tags way too often? Absolutely not. After all, Hawk might decide to pay me a visit.
But you aren’t Craig Johnson or Robert B. Parker and neither am I. So if we break da rules and we want to find success, we should know we’ve broken the rules and have a reason for breaking them. And then, if someone along the way–say an editor or a more experienced writer–says “hey, you really shouldn’t do that,” we should listen and consider what they say, then cast aside ego and do what’s best for our work.
Da rules are there for a reason. And just because someone got published decades ago and broke them doesn’t mean you should break them today. You should have your own, well-thought out reasons for breaking them.