Some Thoughts on Writing Rules

(Yes, I know this is a post about writing, but considering the feedback I received when I wrote about not giving writing tips any more, I feel a bit more emboldened to take the plunge. Feel free to comment your disagreements or alternative viewpoints.)

I’ve probably said something about writing rules in the past. If I have, it was long enough ago that I’ve forgotten, and you probably have too. In fact, I’ll probably repeat myself. Feel free to search through the blog archives to see if I’ve changed my mind on the subject. You can then quote me against myself and watch as I have an argument with Old Colin. It’ll be like watching a dog chasing its tail. On the other hand, you could just read on and argue with me yourself. 🙂

The earnest writer embarking on “serious writing” for the first time, will soon encounter “rules” they need to follow if they are to write well. These rules include such stalwarts as:

  • Show Don’t Tell
  • Avoid adverbs (totally, absolutely, completely, and wholeheartedly)
  • Don’t end sentences with a preposition
  • Don’t start with the weather
  • Don’t start with the protagonist waking up from a dream
  • Only ever use “said” as a speech indicator (“What?” he said)
  • Avoid clichés like the plague

… and so on. There are lots more you can find online, I’m sure.

Here’s my main beef with these rules. When you are writing fiction, or even narrative non-fiction (i.e., non-fiction that reads like a novel), there are no rules. Creative writing is just that: creative. It is an exercise of the imagination, and where the imagination is concerned, anything goes.

Let me make one thing clear. As a Christian, I believe wholeheartedly in absolutes. There are rules by which the universe operates, and there are standards of morality whereby we were designed to function best to the glory of our Creator. I am by no means a moral pragmatist. However, when it comes to artistic endeavors, I am totally sold on the principle that what’s right is what works.

These “rules” have a place. They can guide us to better practices. When a piece of writing isn’t working, try applying some of these rules. But don’t feel enslaved to them. Sometimes (probably more often that we’d like to admit), telling makes for better narrative than showing. Sometimes adverbs are not only unavoidable, but necessary. There are great stories that start with the weather, or a dream. There are times when “said” doesn’t say enough. And a cliché might, on occasion, fit the prose better than an original saying.

But how do you know when to break the “rules”? How do you know when your writing “works”? That’s the tough question, partly because, despite what the MFA Police and the Grammar Gestapo would tell you, there is no universal standard of “good writing.” I’ve read best sellers that made my writerly skin crawl, and I’ve read freebie stories on the internet that make my literary heart sing. Even among the “Classics” there are books that people love to read even 100 years after they were first published, and books that are a struggle to get through the first 10 pages. Why these are “Classics” is an argument for the academics, and academics will disagree over which books belong in that blessed canon, which proves my point.

So how do you know if your writing “works”? In my experience… here it comes… the big answer… the key to unlock the mysteries of writing… you just know. What??! Yes, I know, that’s a bit lame, but it’s the truth. But how do I know? Because I read a lot, and I guess I have some facility with words (so I’ve been told), I know when a sentence rings true and when it clunks. I don’t always see it, which is why having beta readers is useful. But often I know when I’ve written something worthy of being read by others, and when I ought to just delete and start over.

How does that help you, O budding wordsmith? First, if you love books, and love writing, you probably have an intuition toward what makes a good sentence. You can feel the rhythm of the language, and you’re not afraid to spend minutes or hours mulling over the correct way to phrase something, or the best word to use out of two or three alternatives. In your first draft, trust your instincts. Write boldly, without fear of Strunk, White, or Elmore Leonard. Then review your work, and edit ruthlessly, giving in to that same urge that would take a red pen to a best selling novel. Then give your work to some trusted friends. They may agree with your choices, or they may disagree. Listen to their suggestions. If they say “You’re telling not showing here,” don’t immediately think you’ve done something wrong. Ask, “Yes, but is telling better here than showing?” Your friend might be hitting you with a rule simply because you broke one, not because the rule works.

Okay, enough of my waffling. Let’s have some other points of view. First, here’s an hour-long presentation writer Lee Child gave on the subject of writing rules and why he doesn’t believe in them. (It’s in two parts; watch them in the order I’ve linked them.) In some literary circles, what he says here is blasphemy, and would be cause to have him burned as a heretic. That alone makes these videos worth watching. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I urge you to hear him out and give what he says some thought:

Next, I recommend Jeff Somers’ Unconventional Writing blog, similarly packed with MFA-defying heresies, couched in Jeff’s incomparable wit and charm with a dusting of profanity:

Writing Without Rules–Unconventional Tips for Writing the Wrong Way

Now it’s your turn. What do you think of writing rules? Agree with me? Disagree? Comment below!

6 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Writing Rules

  1. AJ Blythe

    I totally agree with you that rules are good… unless they need to be broken =)

    Yet as an unpublished writer I do think it is harder to break the rules than if you are published. When you are one of hundreds in a slush pile and you start with a dream, waking up or driving somewhere I can’t imagine the agent will give your opening a chance, no matter how awesome it actually is.

    I also think rules have a place. Not necessarily literally, but because of what they teach. Don’t start with something that can bore the reader (waking up or the weather), keep it interesting (show don’t tell), keep the flow of dialogue easy to follow without distractions (‘said’ tag) and so on. I’ve learnt a lot by “learning the rules”. It doesn’t mean I agree with them, but the principles behind them make a lot of sense.

    1. cds Post author

      You make good points, AJ. My concern is that writers either a) spend too much time worrying about rules and not writing, or b) try so hard to adhere to the rules that their writing becomes stilted, and they lose their voice. I could be wrong, but I think even the most eagle-eyed agent will pass over adjectives and “telling” if they are sucked into a good story. And that’s what matters most.

  2. John Davis Frain

    Great stuff, Colin. If there’s a vote afoot, I select YES to read more about writing tips. Can’t get enough of them, even I only follow half of them.

    I found the Lee Child piece very entertaining. But I surprised myself by how much I disagreed with. It felt good though, to disagree and have reason behind my thinking.

    First, learn the rules. Then, learn how (and when) to break them. As a writer, you’ll know when you get there. Kinda like you say how you’ll know a good sentence. Same logic.

    1. cds Post author

      Thanks for the vote, John! 🙂

      I guess I stand somewhere between you and Mr. Child, partly because I believe good writers (i.e., writers with some modicum of talent) will follow many of these “rules” intuitively. There are, for example, pianists who need sheet music to tell them if they’re playing a wrong note. And then there are those who may not be able to read notes, but can hear it. Which is why I don’t dismiss the “rules” as wrong, misguided, or useless. Rather, I call them guidelines, or “best practices,” and use them when necessary. Don’t get hung up over whether you’re showing or telling, just write your story the best way you know how.

      An example: I recently read a best selling author’s crime novel, and in it the author’s omniscient voice switched from one character’s POV to another’s and back again within the space of a few lines. It didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the story, and it didn’t cause me to throw the book across the room in disgust. My writerly mind noted it, smiled, and moved on. It’s possible if I hadn’t had so much exposure to the “rules,” I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Which begs the question: was it bad because it broke a “rule,” or did it break a “rule” because it was bad? And if the former, then was it really bad in the first place?


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