Received wisdom and shibboleths.

This post is brought to you by the fact that, this morning (which will be, oh, about a week ago by the time this newsletter goes out), I crouched down to pick up the cat bowls, stood with two bowls in either hand, and swiveled with my weight on my right heel in order to take them to the sink.

And then I stopped, thought about it, turned back, and did it again.

The reason this happened is because I remembered, as I turned on my heel, a list of internet advice for writers (and a rejection letter I once got) that maintained that “people never turn on their heels; they turn on the balls of their feet.”


I will grant that turning on one’s heel is a cliche, and possibly overuse should be avoided on those grounds. But a physical impossibility it is not—and furthermore, it’s a piece of figurative language intended to describe an abrupt and cutting physical reversal of the body.

(That same rejection letter also told me that women can’t handle stallions, a piece of information that will come as a vast surprise to all of the women jockeys, trainers, eventers, dressage riders, barn owners, and show jumpers in the equestrian world, but hey, bad received wisdom is not limited to human body dynamics. Anyway, I never submitted to that market again and now it’s out of business, which I’m sure is entirely because of my scorn.)

I also recently read an introduction to a mystery novel, written by one author (a) about another author (b) who is, to my mind, a generally better prose stylist… in which (a) felt the need to point out that (b)’s prose is not always up to snuff. (Physician, heal thyself!) The example (a) gave of (b)’s poor prose is that (b) sometimes says that a character, for example, “snapped” a phrase. “You can’t snap words! Try it!”

This, my dear children, is what we call in the industry “a metaphor.” Admittedly, it’s a metaphor that has become so ingrained in the language that we don’t necessarily recognize it as a metaphor any more, but a metaphor it is.

Likewise “hissed,” which I’ve seen more often as “You can only hiss a phrase that contains esses!”

To which I hiss, “Fuck you, motherfucker.”

Sigh. My point here, I guess, is that writers (and editors, and readers) have a lot of silly magic formulas about Things You Must Never Do, often including a spurious justification for that Thing. In point of fact, however, those Things are often pet peeves handed down from other writers, or editors, or internet lists.

So—in the awareness that not every editor or every reader is going to like your choices—feel free to examine and—if you choose—discard any such shibboleths as you find hurled about as Infinite Truths, such as: Never use any word to indicate dialogue except for said. Never use an adverb along with that said. People do not turn on their heels. You should not use the singular they. Splitting infinitives is bad grammar. There are no white horses.

I’m not saying you can’t have your own pet peeves, but it’s more community-minded to acknowledge that they are pet peeves and not universal truths! I’m also not saying that overuse of colorful “said” verbs isn’t distracting, or that the fifteenth time on a page I read, “she said adverbily” I’m not glad I didn’t pick this one up in audiobook where you just can’t skim. (I am saying that importing Latinate grammar to English is a classist affectation, though.)

Ahem. Anyway, I haven’t had coffee yet. So I’m off to rectify that.