Rules of “good writing” have always bothered me. There are many reasons for this: I have a questioning mind and I don’t accept anything is so simply because some authority tells me it’s so. I see so many places where the rules are “broken”–sometimes for good, and sometimes not so much. (Rereading the Harry Potter series as I recover from my sinus surgery, I haven’t been able to help noticing how much static language and passive voice J.K. Rowling used, especially in the first three books. As an aside, it’s been interesting to watch her writing style mature over the course of the series.) And a lot of the time the “rules” simply don’t apply to my personal experience.
But one thing I never considered was that the rules of writing one sees so much might be gendered.
Like it or not, gender is an issue in a writer’s world, especially when you get into genre fiction. And I mean, the gender of the writer, not of the characters. It’s still a man’s world out there. If it weren’t, you wouldn’t need con panels like “Women in Science Fiction;” the fact that women write it wouldn’t be seen as anything remarkable. Men still get most of the reviews, and men are still the ones asked to write reviews. And it’s possible that men are still the ones telling us how to write, whether or not what works for male writers works for women.
I started thinking about this just this morning, actually. Yesterday I read a blog by a prominent male author & blogger. The topic was one of the usual ones: Write even when you don’t feel like it. This is one of the “rules” that bothers me, and I felt moved to comment to that effect. This morning, I found that several people had responded to my comment. I fully expected my point of view to be dismissed, but when I looked at the responses all of them agreed with me and said they appreciated my articulating what they had wanted to say themselves. And all of the respondents were women.
It got me thinking. The idea of writing every day whether you want to or not comes from a place of privilege, doesn’t it? It assumes that you have even five minutes to yourself to jot down words, that you aren’t struggling with a chronic illness, that you feel justified in taking the time to write. It assumes that not writing every day shows a lack of commitment or the unwillingness to “develop the habit of writing.”
But I have to ask, who has the time? Despite many strides in feminism and equality, it’s still the women who are responsible for most of the housework and child care. Women are still expected to spend more time on personal grooming. Women suffer more chronic illnesses than men, including auto-immune disorders like fibromyalgia, which can be completely debilitating. Sometimes, we don’t write because we simply CAN’T, not because we’re lazy or less dedicated. And then we have the added burden of feeling guilty about not writing, because so many people who do not have our experience tell us we should be doing it every day, whether we can or not.
It made me wonder about other writing rules. A quick Google search came up with about 650 million results. Obviously I haven’t gone through all of them, but in the first five pages I found two references to lists of writing rules by women as opposed to 30-odd references to writing rules by men. (Many of these were the most recent list from Elmore Leonard.) Making a brief comparison between this list and another by Janet Fitch, it strikes me how dissimilar they are. Leonard’s are, in the main, definite instructions: Do this, Don’t do that. Fitch’s are more suggestions that an individual might apply to his or her own writing experience: Pick a better verb, or explore dependent clauses. I can’t help but feel that, perhaps, this difference may stem from a difference in world view and experience. And it makes me ask the question: Are women writers doing themselves a disservice when they try to follow the rules that have been made up by men in the field?
I don’t have an answer, and I think the question deserves further exploration. I’m interested to hear what others might think.