Writing Rules are Just Tools
If you’ve been studying the craft of writing for long, you’ve heard all the “rules.” You know that you’re supposed to show not tell, use active not passive verbs, eschew adverbs, maintain consistent POVs, avoid repetition, and all the rest.
But it’s easy to get too caught up in the rules and get frustrated at trying so hard to follow them that you find your creativity stunted. Some writers are actively resentful about rules, feeling like the Writing Establishment is trying to keep everyone in a little box and not allow writers’ artistic visions to shine through. So I’d like to share a few thoughts about writing rules.
1. Writing rules are not meant to be slavishly followed.
They’re meant to be thoughtfully considered and used when appropriate.
2. It’s okay to ignore writing rules in your first draft.
That’s when creativity reigns. If you want, you can start thinking about the rules in your revision process. Writing is more a creative, right-brain process. Editing and applying rules is more a left-brain process. Try not to get your brain too confused by doing both at once.
3. Writing is not ABOUT the rules.
The rules are just TOOLS to help you write effectively. The goal in writing is to engage your reader, draw them in, make them want to keep turning the pages, whether you’re telling them a story or giving them information. So writing rules are simply the means of helping you do that.
The only time “rules” ever come into play is when you or your editor recognizes that something’s not working. Maybe the book is getting boring, the characters don’t feel believable, the arguments in your nonfiction work are falling flat, the reader isn’t engaged. It’s pretty easy to identify what’s wrong. However, figuring out how to fix it—that’s where the rules come in. Rules are a means of identifying how to fix a problem so that the reader remains engaged.
The only reason to maintain consistent and strong POVs is to keep your reader deeply involved with your characters. The reason to show not tell is to keep your reader’s imagination active, keep your story alive and visual in their mind. Each of the rules serves a purpose – it’s a tool to help you create a written work that others want to read.
So whenever you get frustrated by the rules, or can’t figure out why or if you should follow a rule or break it, go back to the reasons behind the rules and ask yourself: Does following this rule strengthen my work? Can adhering to a rule make my manuscript more readable and enjoyable? Do I know enough about the reasons for the rules to effectively break them?
By going back to the purpose of writing rules, you can save yourself frustration and focus instead on the goal: powerful and engaging writing that people want to read.
Q4U: What’s your opinion of “writing rules”? Do you find them challenging, helpful, frustrating? How do you decide when to break them?