Write Like a Pirate

Once you start seriously developing your writing as a craft, you realize you need more expert feedback than your mother can give. So you set your course and sail into the waters of critique. No matey, this is not a mythical land. But any critique group is populated by writers with deadly weaponry. Your well-intentioned critiquers will bear down on you, cannons blazing with a heavy shot of RULES!

As they blast their way through the hull of your manuscript, you might wonder where you went wrong. What dangerous waters have you sailed into? How can a good pirate like yourself save your manu-ship from total annihilation?

First, let me assure you that your first draft sucks. Everyone’s does.

Second, let me reassure you that it can be saved. And your creative side can be saved, too. How?

First, know the RULES

1. Don’t use adverbs

Many can be identified as those pesky -ly words such as softly, menacingly, or angst-riddenly (ok, I made that one up). The common wisdom is that adverbs make for weak writing.

Why? What has the humble adverb done to merit so much hate?

Well, in all honesty, overusing adverbs sounds wishy-washy. Not that sweet ocean sound of waves lapping against the shore. Rather, unnecessary adverbs are a bit like telling someone something, and then going back on it.

For example:

She walked loudly.

You’ve told your reader that ‘she walked,’ only to then say, ‘but not the way you think she was walking, really I mean she was walking with much more force than usual.’

This is why it would be more effective to tell the reader:

She stomped.

Bam. Stomped is stronger! Stomped makes a point!

So when you use adverbs, be certain it’s for a mostly probably kind of good reason.

By the way, if anyone has a bang-up fantastic article on excellent adverb use, please send it to me. Too many articles just tell people they’re lazy writers. I agree, don’t be lazy. But I would love to have some great actionable tips too!

2. Show don’t tell

Often referenced from:

"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." -Anton Chekhov

Oh, show don’t tell. How do I love thee, let me count the ways…

The tricky thing about show don’t tell is that it takes more time and more words to show. So your showing has to be specific, clear, and concise enough that your reader won’t get lost in unnecessary showiness.

For example:

Jason seethed with rage.

Might be stronger as:

Jason’s chest heaved, his nostrils flaring as each breath seemed a greater effort than the last.

I hope you can see Jason about to charge! Watch out! However, that also took four times more words than the first version.

Show is great, but only when show fleshes out crucial elements of the story. Excessive showing is just as tiresome as excessive telling.

3. Don’t use filter words

Often a part of ‘show don’t tell.’ This describes when the author inserts a character between the story-detail and the reader.

Jessica saw the moon.

‘Saw’ would be the filter, where the detail of the moon is literally seen by the character, not the reader.

Instead it might be stronger to state:

The moon peeked from behind a mass of clouds. (Yes, I know that’s a bit cliché, but we’ll discuss cliché another time.)

Here’s a nice little post on filter words from Write it Sideways.

4. Don’t use passive voice

Passive voice gets a bad rap because, like adverbs, too much passive can be a sign of weak, lazy writing. Passive voice is when the object of an action becomes the focus of a sentence.

The medallion was swung by Cheery McHero.

Cheery McHero is the one doing the action. To make the sentence active, she is the one who should be the focus.

Cheery McHero swung the medallion.

Often this is better. But passive can be used to great effect when a writer has a specific reason for making the object the focus.

My phone was stolen!

In this case, I emphasize the importance of my phone by putting it first.

Be careful! Passive voice is often mistakenly identified as any use of the word ‘was.’ This is not the case.

The parchment was red is not passive. It’s past tense because it’s describing the state of the document, not the action of/on the document.

A great way to identify passive voice is to add the words ‘by zombies’ on the end of the phrase. If it makes sense, passive. If not, not passive.

The parchment was red by zombies = Doesn’t make sense; not passive.

The parchment was read by zombies = Does make sense; passive. Though I’m not sure if zombies can read. Anyone have evidence of this?

Here is an excellent summary of passive voice, and how to identify and use it to good effect.

These are four of the most common writing rules. Now that we know them, here comes the most important part…

Realize the rules are actually guidelines

I’ve gone pirate and I won’t apologize for it

Like all advice, most of these rules came about not because using these techniques is W-R-O-N-G, but because novices were using them in incorrect situations, or with inappropriate gusto.

In an effort to give writers quick fixes for their common mistakes, the advice would invariably be boiled down from:

You should avoid using adverbs for [insert sensible comment here].



Even the most devoted of adverb despisers, such as Stephen King – who once famously said:

"The road to hell is paved with adverbs." -Stephen King

– uses adverbs for good reason. I recently read Under the Dome and can guarantee you that there was an average of at least one adverb per page. Am I calling out the King?


In fact he’s making my point for me.

The point isn’t that adverbs (or passive voice, or telling) are bad. It’s that good writers use all the tools at their disposal to tell a good story. That means using adverbs, and telling, and even passive voice when it strengthens the writing.

Get back to pirate fun

When you hear these rules, instead of freaking out and doing a global search of your manuscript for *ly and deleting all offenders, try out what I do.

Take a swig of rum (or coffee or even tea, I suppose) and say:

They’re not so much ‘rules’ as ‘guidelines.’

A philosophy which I have gleefully stolen from Captain Barbossa, and which I think more writers need to embrace.

We like rules, because by following ‘the rules’ we feel there will be a positive, easy-to-replicate result.

But I’ve found that if you’re too consumed by the rules, you lose your sense of style. Even your passion for your beloved project can diminish as the obsession becomes making it ‘perfect,’ hoping to snag those 5-star reviews. That six-figure book deal. Or that Nobel prize for teapot erotica. (What? It’s a thing.)

Do I advocate pen-and-ink anarchy?

No way.

Even pirates have a code.

But the life of a (writing) pirate is one free from the tyranny of abusive rules. When you obsess over the rules to the point when you no longer enjoy the swell of the words under your fingertips, or you edit until you need an eye-patch, you’ve lost the freedom that comes from being creative.

When someone points out you’ve broken the rules, say ‘Arrgh matey, you’ve got me!’ (Or something that doesn’t make you sound like you’re a cartoon.) Then honestly investigate whether your word choice is what’s needed to voice your message clearly. If you can make it better, do so. But if that adverb or passive sentence is appropriate for the tone of your manuscript (or character or narrator), let it be.

Stick to the guidelines and sail in the right direction. Just remember that you don’t have to make an identical journey as someone else to reach the same destination.

You are the captain of your plot; you must become master of your prose.


Original image from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End; added by Captain Teague to pirates.wikia.com

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    1. Thanks Rebecca. I find rules are more useful if we remember to not take them so seriously. 🙂

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