Knowing writing rules doesn’t guarantee you’ll produce stellar written work, but aspirational rules can expand your horizons, and practical rules can improve your writing craft.

In late 2016, I wrote a piece titled “How To Fail As A Writer” that identifies 23 ways you can sabotage your written work or thwart your efforts at being a writer. Readers contributed a slew of comments and additions. Clearly, a wide range of guidance to live by exists. In fact, it is so large a corpus it can often be bewildering, contradictory, too personalized, or too general to be of great use to your particular writing goals.

In writing that post, I broke one of my own writing rules: I used humor. This proved a valuable lesson to me, as “How To Fail As A Writer” is my most popular article on the BookBaby Blog. Now I love that I did it, and might try it again. It was rewarding to go to the edge of my comfort zone.

Breaking the rules can pay off – but first, you have to have rules

What writing rules do you live by? Which rules that you’ve set for yourself have you broken – or want to break?

As we evolve as writers, we become aware of the “rules of writing,” the conventions shared by the writing and reading community. We adopt some, cast others aside, and develop some for ourselves. The truth is, a rule is a rule because it is widely shared.

Another truth is no two writers prioritize the same rules: there is no one list of rules to live by. But there is a sea of “good ideas,” and there are the expectations of readers.

Asked to draw up a list of advice from this sea of best intentions, every writer will come up with a different list. Just look at the incredible variety of ideas in this compilation of “Top 10 Rules of Writing.” As you scroll through the words of wisdom, you’ll note that no two authors sport the same list. It’s up to you to navigate this sea and prioritize the pickings to best suit your needs.

Writing is a complex matter, covers a huge range of subjects, and there are as many ways to write as there are writers. Each author writes differently, is at a different stage in his/her career, and has unique writing goals. Hence, floods of “rules.”

Some writers favor giving broad suggestions, others go narrow. The more general, the more widely applicable, but specific advice can be more practically helpful.

For example, Mark Twain says, “Use good grammar.” This is a sound piece of incredibly general advice.

On the other hand, Jonathan Franzen gives advice applicable to the use of a single word: “Never use the word ‘then’ as a conjunction – we have ‘and’ for this purpose. Substituting ‘then’ is the lazy or tone-deaf writer’s non-solution to the problem of too many ‘ands’ on the page.”

Pieces of advice often apply only to a specific type of writing or to a particular point in a writing career. You can find rules of writing for beginners, the struggling writer, and emerging authors.

Other lists veer more towards notes on the writing lifestyle or how to boost productivity. “Do back exercises,” Margaret Atwood recommends. “Pain is distracting.”

So, writing advice is writer-specific. How much of it applies to you? The best approach is to read lots of writing advice and cobble together a list that works best for you.

For example, my favorite piece of advice in this compilation is from Mark Twain, who makes this profound observation:

“The time to begin writing is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.”

Develop your own lists of writing rules

The point is, you are the one who should make your own list. And since we all evolve as writers, you should ideally have three. The first list is your foundation, the second holds your aspirations, and the third is the one you “give away” if anyone asks you for general advice. These three lists serve as your mantras and goals and reflect your current understanding of craft.

The lists in the top 10 writing rules compilation are for public consumption – are they really the lists these authors had (or have) posted by their typewriters?

In creating a publishable list, some famous authors packaged up advice they thought would be most humorous, writing first and foremost to entertain. Perhaps they chose to make writing look easier – or harder – than it really was for them.

What you think the best generic pieces of writing advice are might be vastly different than the advice you need to finish your current project. You might already have a set of foundational rules you work by, perhaps intuitively. As a reader, you’ll have absorbed many of the conventions of great writing and you’ll naturally do the same.

Still, it can be enlightening to look down compiled lists of advice and see what you can cull for your own. Rules are there to light up the way, not stifle creative impulses. Looking through lists can trigger productive thinking. “Ah! That writer does the same as I do!” or, “I never thought of that… that’s exactly what I needed!”

Your personal rules should be ones that consistently help you, the ones that most markedly improve your writing. You have strengths and weaknesses like all other writers, and you are at a particular point in your writing journey. This makes you unique.

But you are also evolving. Your goal is to get better – to have more and better ideas and express them more effectively so that readers enjoy them as much as you do. So, your priority rules can change – and some can be aspirational.

What worked for you yesterday may not be the best advice for you tomorrow because now you’re a more mature writer.

Your aspirational rules expand your horizons. Pick them to push you up the learning curve. Perhaps you want to focus more on precision, detail, or scrubbing out “glue words.” Perhaps you want to up your tally of strong verbs. Perhaps you want to reach a certain word count each day. Put these on your aspirational list.

Once you digest an aspirational rule, pick a new, more ambitious one. Climb. Climb. Climb.

The evolution of your lists

Make your lists of rules, stick by them, and change them when you are ready to level up. The power of “knowing the rules” is that you plug into a base of knowledge that is shared. This means you have the power to use exceptions to your advantage as well!

The rule about breaking rules is it’s great as long as it improves your writing. This means an exception must improve meaning or heighten the experience of the reader in a significant way. Some of the best examples of writing in the world are ones that broke conventional wisdom in an extremely clever way.

Also bear in mind, knowing writing rules doesn’t mean you’ll have the ability to produce stellar written work: that comes from somewhere deeper, where ideas and experiences live. For all the rules, brilliant writing is still about the “magic.”

 

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How To Fail As A Writer
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Dawn Field

About Dawn Field

Dawn Field has written 58 posts in this blog.

Dr. Dawn Field is a book lover interested in what makes great writing. After a 20 year career as a research scientist, her first book, Biocode, was published by Oxford University Press. Now a columnist of The Double Helix, Dr. Field is exploring new writing venues and writing a second book. Based in Virginia, Dr. Field is looking to collaborate with a range of fiction writers as a writing coach, editor, and consultant on the publishing process: fiedawn@gmail.com.

12 thoughts on “What writing rules do you live by (and which ones do you break)?

  1. I write rhyming picture books for children. Sometimes, my character has dialogue that is on the next page (after a page turn). In my first book, I followed the rules on quotation marks because I was shamed into it by the editor, even though the pages “looked” incomplete to someone who doesn’t know proper grammar and punctuation.

    I DO try not to write myself into that situation anymore, but in my most recent book, I ended up with TWO times where I finally decided to BREAK THE RULE. So the dialogue on each page has a beginning and an ending quote. There, I said it. And I’m not the least bit sorry 🙂

    1. Dawn Field says:

      When there is a great reason, it’s the right thing to do!

  2. Good article if you remove the so-called advice of Franzen. If he ever learns to tell a story that is interesting, he may have a book worth reading. Until that time, his books will simply be a string of meaningless sentences strung together into what usually amounts to “too many pages.” As to his advice, “then” is a conjunctive adverb and as such can be used to connect independent clauses. It also has a long history of being used as a coordinating conjunction by many well-known writers. Even the NY Times uses it as a conjunction as evidenced by this: “I went to high school, then I went to college.”

    1. Michael van der Riet says:

      My MS Word isn’t happy with “then.” I cheat by making “then” start a new sentence. “I went to high school. Then I went to college.”

      Thanks for your opinion on Franzen. Now I know I’m not alone! I like your web page. Judging by the number of five star reviews, you have to be pretty good. Thanks for taking time out to share with struggling would-be authors like me.

    2. M Tiro says:

      ““I went to high school, then I went to college” is a comma-splice error, a run-on sentence. The NYT is wrong, and so are you.

  3. 1. Be unique, offering readers a most unusual reading experience.

    2. Be disciplined and focused.

    3. Always consider the business side of writing.

    4. Begin your marketing before publishing your book.

    5. Never, ever give up.

  4. P.I. Barrington says:

    I break whatever I need to in order to affect a response. Other times I just break them for the hell of it.

    1. Dawn Field says:

      As long as you are happy with it — and the consequences. If it improves the reader experience, it’s always correct.

  5. Anonymole says:

    POV is a bugaboo for me. Slipping in the thought of someone who is in the scene but not the main POV used to happen in my writing all the time. Omniscient am I; no, I’m the omniscient one, she thought.
    So, after I got straightened out – mostly, I now will allow the occasional POV hop into a character, usually toward the end of a scene. Like a waitress walking away from a difficult encounter with the MC. {Suzie spun and strutted from the table wondering if dealing with this jerk’s behavior finally earned her some vacation time.} That kind of thing.

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