originally published on 11/9/2009

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DH: A list recently published in The New York Times by a noted restaurateur gave 100 rules for what service staff should not do. I thought a list of 50 things that writers shouldn’t do would give us all a chance to vent. I’m contributing 10 items. Some of these pet peeves have pissed me off for years:

  1. Don’t use italics for more than one line.
  2. Don’t tell me what someone looks like if it doesn’t matter.
  3. Don’t make me draw a diagram to figure out who’s speaking.
  4. Don’t write in a manner that’s different from your everyday speech. You should write like your best talk when you’re having a very good day.
  5. Don’t start your story with a character alone in a room unless you’re Kafka and your character is going to turn into a bug.
  6. I should be able to turn to any passage in your story and enjoy the craft of it. Don’t write a coy opening to draw me in. I’ll throw the book away instead.
  7. You have five minutes to interest me, not with gimmicks but with craft.
  8. Topicality is another word for bullshit.
  9. If you use one awkward word in 500 pages, I’ll notice it. It counts against you.
  10. You’re the artist. Ignore my rules.
And here’s 30 more Don’ts from the Three Guys! But we want your help with the last ten! So read over our list and add your suggestions so we can make up 50 Don’ts!
JE:
  1. Don’t write. Tell me a story.
  2. Don’t include scenes just because they’re good scenes.
  3. Don’t tell the story with your head, tell it with your body, even when it’s cerebral.
  4. Don’t let overarching symbolism marginalize your characters.
  5. Don’t show off, it doesn’t serve the story.
  6. Don’t try to be culturally significant, just report the human condition
  7. Don’t hide behind sarcasm.
  8. Avoid obtuse narrative devices and ambiguous POV transitions.
  9. Don’t be too explicit, the reader has a brain.
  10. Don’t burden me with peripheral information, unless your intent is to distract.
JR:
  1. Don’t tell me what you want from my writing. I’ll give it to you. Take it or leave it.
  2. Don’t write in cliche.
  3. Don’t write in stereotype unless you’re poking fun at that stereotype, and it’s obvious, like Wes Anderson in the Royal Tannebaums.
  4. Don’t give me a love interest just to make the character “likeable/relatable”  or “well rounded”, people fall in love, if your characters don’t, then that’s it, love doesn’t find everyone.
  5. Don’t use pop culture as a crutch when you have no characters or story to tell. I don’t give a fuck about Whitney Houston, ever, and she has no business in a novel.
  6. Don’t glue your story to a cause or a distrupted group or country and call it a novel. I call that bad reporting.
  7. Don’t go 250 pages without something happening in the story. You’re not John Irving. Even John Irving isn’t John Irving.
  8. If you want to give me information, technical or otherwise, don’t turn it into a sleep aid. Make me want to read it. See: The Corrections.
  9. Don’t let someone write in your galley, “the first great novel of…” because I know it’s not.  Why? Because someone told me it was.
  10. If I send you books to be signed, as I’m a collector of first editions, and you said you’d do it, then you better do it. And respond to my email where I ask if you got the books. You’re just a writer after all. No one is on the operating table.
JC:
  1. Don’t write something where nothing happens. This ain’t Godot. Make something happen. If you find you don’t have enough material, try microblogging instead.
  2. Don’t let your publicity materials be less compelling than the  book. You’ve got to convince someone to read it. That counts for query letters, too.
  3. Don’t rely on brands to describe your character to me. Define you character by more than his possessions
  4. Don’t get so bogged down in description that I don’t care about the story. Tell me what I need to know and get on with it.
  5. Don’t be technical. If you must, be concise and clear. See Richard Powers for a positive example.
  6. Don’t write fiction with an agenda. It reaps tedium.
  7. Don’t let your characters act at odds to their established patterns.
  8. Don’t ask for advice or criticism if what you want is a pat on the back.
  9. Don’t hold the reader’s hand. It’s ok to make them think. Hold something important back. Spill it at the opportune moment. Make sure it’s worth waiting for.
  10. Don’t write about trends or fads. In 10 years you’ll either be ridiculous, or no one will know what the hell you’re talking about. See any Twitter novel.

There you have it: 40 rules, some of which no doubt contradict each other. So tell us, readers, what would you have a writer never do?