Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Rule of Five


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"Just one sentence, to see if this guy can really write," is what I told myself. Two days and 354 pages later I'm splayed out with chocolate stains on my face. I am sated... Can this guy, Rob Parnell, really write? Honestly, I don't know. I was too busy reading." Roger Kenyon, Amazon reader review.

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First Cut
Plus, in case you've been following this other thing, I have finally finished making First Cut, my latest horror movie - a 30 minute piece - and I'm ready to start submitting it to film festivals around the world.

I'll be putting out a 30 second trailer for it soon.

Keep writing!


The Rule of Five

Whatever you're writing, a good rule is that you expend five times more effort editing than you did creating the first draft.

That way you'll be sure to find mistakes, tighten up the text and generally create something actually worth reading.

So, if it takes you an hour to write something - be prepared to spend five hours editing it to perfection.

This may seem extreme but honestly, if being a lifelong writer has taught me one thing, it's that presentation and effectiveness is everything.

And, being a teacher of writing for over a decade, I can honestly say that it's clear many new writers are loathe to look at what they've written even once before they're convinced it's ready.

Probably because, if they did, they'd see that it was essentially worthless.

As Hemingway famously said, Everyone's first draft is crap.

There are five issues that are important when editing.

1. Punctuation

2. Grammar

3. Logic

4. Clarity

5. Style

Let's look at how these issues need addressing when editing.


I am constantly amazed at how few writers understand the importance of using correct punctuation.

Punctuation is like the internal framework to a house. Without it, the building falls down.

When you use punctuation incorrectly, readers subconsciously know they are dealing with ineffective writing. As hard as they try, readers are being misled by the sloppy use of commas, periods and speech marks in particular.

Punctuation is a universal language in itself - completely separate from words. It is imperative that you use punctuation correctly for two reasons. 

One, to get your meaning across. And two, not to look like a complete fool - as you do when you use punctuation incorrectly.

Always check whether that comma is in the right place - or whether you need it at all. 

Become fascinated by punctuation - how it works and what it's for. 

Professional writers are genuinely intrigued by punctuation even after years in the business. You should be too.  


Every new writer wants to change the rules.

I've lost count of the times I've heard: "But this is how I do it. This is what works for me. I am inventing new rules for the world to learn from, etc."

All complete tosh.

Let me state something categorically for you:

In sentences of less than five words - five again - it is SOMETIMES okay to write ungrammatical sentences for effect.

The rest of time, it is crucial that your sentences follow the accepted rules of grammar - that is, mainly, that you need an obvious subject that doesn't get lost in the middle of a whole bunch of verbiage.

Grammar is designed to help you make yourself understood.

The English language is enormously flexible. You can string together words in all kinds of ways that are harmonious, arresting, terse and beautiful. But if your sentences lack the correct structure, they quickly become meaningless.

And you'll end up looking like a fool again.

Are you beginning to see why you need to spend five times longer on your editing than on your writing?

And yes - it's okay to bend the rules sometimes. Like starting a sentence with 'And'! But generally only when you know what you're doing - and know exactly which rules you're breaking!


In many genres of writing, you have to assume that your reader doesn't know you at all - especially how your mind works.

The only way your reader knows you at all is through your writing. 

Just because something is obvious to you doesn't mean it's apparent to anyone else.

Writing is about 'selling' propositions to people, even in fiction.

When you describe a scene, an emotion or a person, you need to consider whether you have done so effectively. Have you used the words that any reader will understand? Or have you merely said enough to push your own buttons?

Writing is about placing pictures in people's minds. Look back at your writing when editing. Will a particular picture be clear? Will it be the right one? Does your writing actually conjure up solid images at all?

Or is your writing vague? Contradictory? Or confusing?

One thought, one intellectual proposition, most flow logically to the next. 

Emotional beats in fiction must be 'sold' effectively, scenes must unfold with clarity and sufficient detail. People must seem real - with realistic motivations.

Get these things wrong - through lazy writing or lack of editing - and you waste opportunities to really connect with your reader.


Clarity is connected to logic - but also important in its own right.

Keeping your writing clear and transparent at all times is about two things.

One, when editing you need to look at each sentence in turn and ask yourself whether you have said what you need to say in the most effective way. 

You need to get used to re-writing sentences that say the same thing. Usually the most effective way of saying something is to use as few words as possible. 

Don't fall in love with your long complicated sentences. They're not better for being longer. Grammatically, longer sentences can often become problematic - for you and your reader.

Real clarity comes from simplicity of expression.

It is not literary to use long sentences to impress your reader, especially if your meaning becomes obscured in the process.

Clarity is about saying what you mean. And knowing what you mean can be one of the hardest things a writer ever has to learn. Indeed, it's a life long learning process in itself.

Two, transparent writing simply helps the reader get past the words to the real sense of what you're writing about

Connecting with a reader is not about impressing them with your words. It's about creeping under their radar - and planting thoughts and images deep into their minds. And you can only do that if your writing is crystal clear.


Only when you have thoroughly vetted your work using the above four 'rules' can you turn your mind to the issue of style.

Style is a nebulous thing. It's often not obvious until you've written a novel or three.

One thing is certain. Style manifests only after the writer has paid careful attention to punctuation, grammar, logic and clarity - and usually for some time - until these things become second nature.

In other words, you can never have a style first - and then work on the 'rules'. 

It doesn't work that way around.

Style comes with experience - and a full understanding of how writing works in any one particular genre or discipline.

Style is really about whether the writing fits the subject matter - and whether your mode of expression is appropriate for the work.

Plus, it's largely a judgment call based on your experience.

To conclude:

The rule of five demands that you consciously try to improve your writing at all times - for your entire life.

We all make mistakes - but only the obstinate or the stupid keep making them over and over.

Personally, I am always horrified and embarrassed when a mistake I've made is pointed out to me.

Perhaps that's just me.

It doesn't seem a common trait in many writers - who continue to write blindly, convinced of their own brilliance, oblivious to any and all of their obvious errors - in punctuation, grammar, logic, clarity and style. 

Don't you be an obstinate dumbass.

On average, spend five times longer editing your manuscript than you did writing it! And really think hard about your writing... 

Before you send out a manuscript, ask yourself repeatedly whether you have addressed every aspect of the rule of five.

And if you're one of those people who just writes and never questions the genius of your work, shame on you!

Your obstinacy is actually hurting all of us - not just you.

Be a smart writer. 

Use the rule of five to your advantage.

Keep Writing!
 rob at home


"A professional is someone who respects his trade, tries as hard as he can to perfect his work, and realizes that one failure is not the end of the world. Or two, or three." Nathaniel Benchley

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