Habitual creativity: The writer’s vow of chastity

inspiration, writing

At SXSW I had the pleasure of sitting in on Andy Barr’s and Sarada Peri’s 37 Practical Tips to Help Your Write & Speak Better. Much of these focused on simplicity of grammar and content, and reminded me of the writer’s vow of chastity my husband conceived back in 2007. Since then, my first drafts attempt to follow the below rules as much as possible. Only then do I go back and add anything more, trying to restrain myself to choices that add clarity.

So here it is.


Just as Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg wrote the film maker’s vow of chastity (also know as Dogme 95), so Bart has proposed a writer’s vow of chastity.

A draft of the rules as of August 4, 2007:

The writer’s vow of chastity

The writer will use no modifiers.

  • No adverbs.
  • No adjectives.

The writer should act as a behaviorist.

  • No words describing emotion.
  • The writer will not make the reader directly privy to a character’s thoughts (no interior dialogue or interior monologue).

The writer may break these rules only when it is unavoidable.

The above may be summarized as, “Not doing the reader’s work for them*.”


*The summary references advice from C.S. Lewis to his students:

Don’t say it was “delightful;” make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do the job for me.”

Barr and Peri also provided a page with the 37 tips, on which I took copious notes. Here it is—enjoy!

Alex's notes, Barr & Peri SXSW writing tips
Barr and Peri’s writing tips, together with the notes I took. I’ve found them helpful, and hope you do, too.

Content strategy: nouns and verbs

design, writing

One of the first things I did for Kinnser Software was begin to establish content strategy guidelines, and this was the first one. It was published in the Kinnser UX blog I started and maintained, as well as the living (coded) style guide I created.

When writing for headers, buttons, navigation links, and similar items, the guidelines are simple:

  • Use nouns for things.
  • Use verbs for actions.
  • Avoid generic terms like “Submit,” as the action may not be interpreted correctly. Instead, describe exactly what the action will do. This is particularly important for our users, since the term “submit” can have multiple meanings. For example, Medicare claims are submitted. An example of good button text can now be seen in the Approve Claims area of Billing Manager [a key Kinnser feature]. Instead of “Submit,” the button helpfully says “Approve Claims for Submission.”
  • Avoid gerunds: verbs functioning as nouns by adding “-ing” to the end of the word. For people for whom English is a second language, this form can be confusing.

The Panther, Rilke


One of my all-time favorites. This German-to-English translation was written by my beloved, Bart Odom:

The Panther

From going through the bars, his gaze has become so exhausted
that it holds nothing anymore.
To him it is as if there are a thousand bars,
and beyond the thousand bars, no world.

The easy swinging of that lithe, potent stride,
which turns in on itself in ever-smaller circles,
is like a dance of power around a center
in which a great will stands benumbed.

Only at times the curtain of the pupils
rises silently – then an image goes in,
goes through the tightened stillness of the limbs,
enters the heart and is no more.

Lord Isildur’s Bane

fun, writing

So, a friend linked to a brilliant, incredibly long thread of Lord of the Rings pastiches:

Despite hundreds (thousands?) of posts, no one had done Stephen Donaldson! So, here’s my humble contribution (I also posted it on The Straight Dope):

Picture Sauron speaking to the King of the Nazgul:

Over his silence, the voice continued, “Isildur was a fool—fey, anile, and gutless. They are all fools. Look you, ringbearer. The mighty High Lord Isildur, son of Elendil and great-grandson of Beren Elf-Spouse whom I hate, stood where you now kneel, and he thought to destroy me. He discovered my designs, recognized some measure of my true stature—though the Numenoreans had set me on their right side in the Council for long years without sensing their peril—saw at the last who I was. Then there was war between us, war that blasted Middle Earth and threatened Gondor itself. The feller fist was mine and he knew it. When his armies faltered and his power waned, he sheared off my finger which bore the Ring, but became mine in thrall to it. He thought that he might use that power. Therefore he drowned in the river from which Smeagol’s friend drew the ring…

“Say to the Council of Elrond, and to High Lord Elrond son of Earendil, that the uttermost limit of their span of days upon Middle Earth is seven times seven years from this present time. Before the end of those days are numbered, I will have the command of life and death on my hand. And as a token that what I say is the one word of truth, tell them this: Frodo Baggins, Halfing of the Shire, has the One Ring, and it is a cause for terror…”

Why blog?

psychology, writing

So, I tell my beloved I’ve become a user on LiveJournal, and he doesn’t get the appeal. It seems too much like a vanity project. Now, this is the man who normally is the first to “get” anything about me, so I started thinking. At the risk of rationalizing my vanity, I thought I’d work it out here.

At a glance, these reasons appear:

  • It’s a way to make the world smaller; a way to find people with common interests who don’t live in the same neighborhood, or even the same continent.
  • In a media-driven culture, placing ourselves online makes us feel more participatory, as opposed to having little or no influence on the world. [Note: “ourselves” and “we” in this entry mean the blogging community, not the voices in my head ;-)]
  • It’s a safe place to express feelings not acceptable in the workplace, etc….
  • It’s a way of dealing with psychological issues without having to confront the fact that you’re dealing with psychological issues. You’re just sharing.
  • It’s a way of dealing with psychological issues deliberately. Writing and speaking thoughts gives us more ability to analyse and “reprogram” them.*

Ok, so there are some reasons, and probably all of them are true for me to some degree. And just writing it all out has made me feel better. So, regardless of the motive, the practice is useful.

* There was an interesting study done on people who experienced sudden catastrophic trauma (such as the WTC tragedy, or Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing). They were asked when they first spoke about the trauma with someone – anyone, whether it be friend, family, police, counselor, stranger – and how they felt about it. They found that a year later, people who spoke about their experience before they went to sleep displayed less severe PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms than people who slept first. Less pain, fewer night terrors, fewer panic attacks, and so forth.

No reason was given, but my idea is that sleep processes information whether we like it or not, and processes it not only on our conscious level but on all those primitive, emotional, fight-or-flight levels as well. Speaking about it doesn’t remove the fear or anger, but does help you sort out the event a little more clearly, and structure the direction of the “hardwiring” that happens while we sleep. Or maybe “firmwiring” is a better phrase, since these are neurons we’re discussing.

Originally posted on LiveJournal.