The Writing Rules Are Just Tools

I am taking a blog hiatus. This is an encore presentation of a previous post.

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. In addition, some writers are actively resentful about the rules, feeling like the Writing Establishment is trying to keep everyone in a little box and not allow writers’ artistic visions to shine through. I want to share a few thoughts about writing rules.

1. They’re not meant to be slavishly followed.

They’re meant to be thoughtfully considered and used when appropriate.

2. The time to apply “writing rules” is usually not in your first draft.

That’s when creativity reigns. Only think 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.

What’s your opinion of “writing rules”? Do you find them challenging, helpful, frustrating? How do you decide when to break them?

  1. Susan Bourgeois says:

    This post is timely for me and I am grateful you ran it again. I needed to be reminded not to get too bogged down with the rules. I happen to love studying the craft of writing. For me, it’s like a puzzle. As I pour over book after book, I am able to put the pieces together.

    Still, there has to be a point where I put the books down and write freely, without the expectation of getting it right the first time; it’s not going to happen.

    I’m confident I’ve spent more than enough time studying the craft of writing.

    Thanks again for this wonderful reminder!

  2. SolariC says:

    I am more of an instinctive writer than someone who goes by the rules, but as I’ve developed my writing style over several years, I’ve noticed something interesting. If you really pay attention to what sounds good and reads well, you stumble across the rules by accident. Especially with adverbs and passive voice, as you revise and edit your writing, you realize how both those things weaken the style and they start coming out. At least that’s been my experience! However, I still cling to occasional adverbs when I feel they’re absolutely necessary – rules aren’t a writer’s god, after all.

  3. Kelly says:

    I think a lot of new writers get very attached to rules because a formula seems easier to follow. I know I was. I still run into people who are like “a good character must NEVER have this trait!” and I roll my eyes.

  4. Linda Adams says:

    I think there are too many writers who trot out rules and act like you have to follow them to the letter or else. I have a book I’m working on in omniscient viewpoint. When I decided to go that route, it was after I tried third and first, neither of which was right for the story. I did recognize that omni was more difficult to write so I did a lot of research to learn how. Posted the a chapter for critique to see if I was on the right track, and I had like ten writers trot out the rules, “Don’t use omni” (which is unfortunately a rule listed in many craft books). The most appalling thing that was that they jumped all over me and were very insistent that I could not use omni because of that rule. No one actually critiqued the writing. Since then, I’ve met several other writers who’ve asked for omni critiques and have been treated the same way.

  5. Chris Lunda says:

    You know I have been telling Tom Wolfe about the exclamation point rule for years. If he would just stop using them so much and follow the ‘rules’ I am sure he would publish more books. I could go on forever but that it just one author who immediately came to mind.

    Our language rules are constantly changing as are the criteria for what is publishable. The king of rules today is a simple punctuation mark that every publisher looks for buried deep within your prose, $$$

  6. What is this word, “Rules?” Can someone explain? I know it not. Perfection comes naturally….

    Oh, wait. Are we talking about Planet Fiction where I am Queen of all the Wild Things and where music plays wherever I go and flowers spring up wherever my foot treads? Or are we talking about the real world in which I live? Rules. Oh yeah. I remember now. Grrrrrr.

  7. I find writing rules to be helpful. After you clear out all those extra, unnecessary words, remove those adverbs, show don’t tell…the story just seems to come together nicely! Great advice about not applying rules on your first draft!

  8. Really good points. I recently edited my first pages according to as many rules as I could gather — all you posted above plus information gleaned from author bloggers etc. One of my critique partners highlighted phrases in my pages with comments like “odd phrasing” “stilted” etc. And she was right! I’d tried so hard to fit the rules that some of my writing lost its flavor and didn’t read smoothly. I had to step back and remember sometimes the best way to say something is the most direct, even if means using “that” or “was” or some kind of writing no-no.

    • Timely post as, like Stephanie, I have been editing my MS and trying to apply ALL the rules that I could find in books, on blogs etc but I finally decided that I was getting too pedantic. In my determination to abide by the rules I was losing my voice and killing the novel. But I realise that there are many places where knowing the rules has helped remove the poor sections. Thanks for all the comments too.

  9. Rules need to be there, like like jackets, chocolate and Diet Coke.
    Terrible writing is obvious, but really good writing flows in such a manner that one never notices that the rules have been broken.
    That because you follwed your theory (right Cherry?) and the words fell into the just the right places.

  10. R.A.Savary says:

    One of the things I look for when making revisions is the intention of what was written. Is a particular phrase or scene intended to convey something necessary to the story, to impress the reader with flowery description, or maybe as a filler to give length to a short, but necessary chapter? While looking at these questions I can spot where rules were broken, and whether or not the broken rule is a good thing often depends on whether or not it was broken just to be broken, because it doesn’t only stand out – it lurches out and vomits in my lap.

    Repetition was mentioned, and I find it to be a very useful tool, rather than something to always be avoided.

    I find writing to be always compatible with my life, not something I need to balance. ‘Nothing is set in stone’ in my life; nor is it in my writing.

  11. Joe Pote says:

    Rachelle, I very much like your approach of not worrying about the rules until the second draft.

    For me, that also helps in understanding the purpose of the rules.

    First draft is me getting my thoughts on paper, and figuring out what direction I’m going.

    Second draft is all about putting myself in the position of the reader, and trying to improve communication.

    Thanks for sharing!

  12. Again, as an artist I am compelled to say, “Rules were meant to be broken”. Twentieth century art would have been blase if Picasso hadn’t broken some rules.

  13. Fred Connor says:

    Thank you for a well written piece of information. The only thing keeping from mastering the art of creative nonfiction is I can’t find enough rules to worry about. Good Job.

  14. Jeanne says:

    As one who has been writing for a relatively short time compared to most here, I am thankful for the rules.

    In my first draft of my ms, I opted to not worry about applying them, in the interest of getting the story down on paper (or the screen).

    As I work through revisions, I’m looking at where I “broke” the rules and fixing those places. My challenge is to find the balance of knowing when rules should dictate, and when rules should suggest how to improve my writing. My hope is that, as I learn how to best apply the rules, I will be able to see when it’s okay to “break the rules with panache,” as Ane Mulligan said above.

  15. As a budding musician, I found theory to be dull, dry and confining – until I realized that music theory was no more than an explanation of what our ears hear and like to hear.

    I have a way with music. I can play by ear, but I am no uber gifted Mozart or Bach. When I play by ear or accompany, I have to go back and fix the awkward parts by referencing music theory.

    As a writer, I have a way with words, they sometimes gush faster than I can type – but, I don’t have a way with punctuation or spelling – so I frequently have to refer to the rules or a dictionary.

    “the rules come into play when you or your editor realize something is not working” – is an application of the rules I can live with- or should that be; is an application of rules with which I can live?

    • I believe it was Winston Churchhill who said–
      The rule about not ending a sentence with a preposition is one up with which I shall not put.

      I took four semester of theory. The first three taught us the rules and the last one told us to break them. 🙂

  16. Ane Mulligan says:

    I’ve always espoused learn the guidelines or rules. THen you’ll know when to break them with panache. But if you don’t know them … how can you be sure your work sings?

  17. Again, I love your balanced approach to the business. I have benefitted greatly from critique partners who have insisted I follow rules. My writing is definitely much better for it. However, I do have places in my manuscript where the reader is supposed to feel the action like an out-of-body experience, and things are being done to her. Thus, I use some passive voice and, dare I say it, floating body parts.

  18. Summer says:

    I like the rules, have a little love affair with them. But they stunt me. I love the idea of keeping them out of the first draft, but can I shut off my analytical mind? It’s so loud!

  19. I’m not sure who came up with the adverb rule that other commenters are referring to, but I first heard about it in Stephen King’s book On Writing. It made an awful lot of sense when I read it, so I went over to my bookshelf and pulled out one of his books. Flipped it open to a random page, and zowie! There was an adverb.

    Currently I’m working my way through Mark Twain’s Roughing It. While it’s a fun story, I keep thinking it would be so much better if he followed the rules on punctuation and on the whole “not only…but also” structure. What an amateur. I bet he was self-published.

  20. Thank. You.

    This post “was” so freeing! Ever since learning the rules, I found myself editing as I wrote, rethinking each sentence so much so that they started sounding choppy. Ugh.

    Now I know. Write first, then edit.

    Got it. Bless you.

  21. To help you be a better a writer, here are the best “rules” ever said about writing to keep things in proper perspective. These quotes — “quotations” for the purists — come from a book that I put together called “Life’s Ludicrous Handbook”.

    As far as I’m concerned, “whom” is a word that was invented to make everyone sound like a butler.
    — Calvin Trillin

    At painful times, when composition is impossible and reading is not enough, grammar and dictionaries are excellent for distraction.
    — Elizabeth Barrett Browning

    This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.
    — Winston Churchill

    George Moore wrote brilliant English until he discovered grammar.
    — Oscar Wilde

    Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.
    — F. Scott Fitzgerald

    What the devil to do with the sentence “Who the devil does he think he’s fooling?” You can’t write “Whom the devil- ”
    — Paul Goodman

    A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.
    — Baltasar Gracián

    When I hear the hypercritical quarreling about grammar and style, the position of the particles, etc., etc., stretching or contracting every speaker to certain rules of theirs . . . I see that they forget that the first requisite and rule is that expression shall be vital and natural, as much as the voice of a brute or an interjection: first of all, mother tongue; and last of all, artificial or father tongue. Essentially your truest poetic sentence is as free and lawless as a lamb’s bleat.
    — Henry David Thoreau

    • When I was teaching (engineering) I made a special point to use grammatically correct English, including the dreaded ‘whom’.

      The students liked it and tried to imitate me, while some of my colleagues thought me snobbish, and mocked my grammar as an affectation.

      • Funny that you would say that.

        When I was taking my Engineering degree so many years ago, I failed English three years in a row. The Associate Dean wouldn’t let me into fourth year Engineering unless I took English in summer school.

        How does that old saying go? Something like:

        “Four years ago I couldn’t spell Engineering. Now I are one!”

        Another saying from way back:

        “Stick around kid. I will learn you a lot.”

        Here are four authors, much more successful than me, who also failed
        English:

        Scott Turow, author of Presumed Innocent and The Burden of Proof, failed English in his freshman year at New Trier High School. Nevertheless, he eventually attended Amherst College, earned a law degree at Harvard and became a bestselling author.

        Although not an author in the strictest sense of the word, “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles Schultz, not only failed English at Central High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, he failed algebra, Latin, and physics. Schultz’s cartoons were turned down by the school’s yearbook staff.
        Moreover, after taking a cartoon drawing course by correspondence, Schultz’s job application for a cartoonist’s position at Walt Disney studios was rejected.

        Brilliant British playwright Noel Coward, creator of worldly comedies such as Hay Fever, Private Lives, and Blithe Spirit, never graduated from grammar school.

        American writer Leon Uris, bestselling author of historical novels including Exodus, Battle Cry, and Trinity, failed English three times at Philadelphia’s John Bartram High School.

        So what does this all mean?

        Leon Uris summed it up quite adequately when he declared, “English and writing have little to do with each other.”

      • One can feel so indignant when that happens.

      • Did you use sentences like “For whom is Diet Coke an actual meal?” when pondering the entire menu at Cracker Barrel?

    • EnnisP says:

      Great quotes. I particularly like WC’s.

  22. I needed this right now! I am halfway through my first round of revisions and finally came to a realization tonight. I use a lot more passive voice when my character is a princess (She can travel between two worlds), and the difference is helping tell my story. It takes her some time, but she is realizing that life as a princess is passive; everything happens to her, and she is not in control of her life. In this case, breaking the rules is not only acceptable, but nearly necessary.
    It feels good to know that I don’t have to force these passages into active voice!

    • Using PV as a storytelling device is an interesting idea, but like the use of dialect, it can get old, and make those sections of the book drag.

      A possible remedy might be introducing those sections in PV, and then subtly switching to AV to maintain continuity of pace.

      You might want to write sections in both style for comments from your beta readers. Not your crit group – they’d be likely to jump on the technical aspects.

      (This suggestion comes from a lecture by my late mentor, Marvin Mudrick.)

      • Luckily, these are the scenes that have a lot of action and dialogue. The PV only shows up in her thoughts, so I think it’s pretty balanced.

        I’ll try writing it both ways to see though– thanks for the idea.

  23. EnnisP says:

    Recipe for rule keeping:

    Start with the point not the rules.

    Make your point and then read the point you’ve made. If it isn’t readable and clear, rearrange until it is. Allow only enough bling to compliment the point.

    Rules honored.

    Simple or simplistic?

    • Excellent summary, but I suspect that it would be predicated on a thorough knowledge of the rules…otherwise the ‘rearranging’ would be a disastrous flailing-about in a shark-infested sea of verbiage.

      I will print it out and pin it to the wall above my computer, whence cometh my inspiration.

      • EnnisP says:

        You’re correct, but…

        Like most, I was dragged through one grammar class after another throughout my school years but still failed a basic grammar test after arriving at college! Consequently, I was not allowed to take any college level English classes until I first passed a “REMEDIAL” course in grammar.

        Insulted and humiliated I took the class and passed with flying colors but my anger had nothing to do with my success.

        The teacher was brilliant! Instead of focusing on rules she focused on the versatility of words.

        The lesson that changed my thinking forever was one that involved her shoe. No, she didn’t kick me. That had been tried before, also without success.

        She took off a shoe, held it up to the class and asked, “what is this?” We all said the obvious, “a shoe.”

        She then held the toe of the shoe and starting banging the heel on the table like she was driving in a nail. Again the question, “what is this now?”

        We all looked at each other blankly, then back at her and, like fleas trained to jump no higher than the rim, sheepishly said, “shoe???”

        To which she responded, “no, now it is a hammer.” That day the light came on for me! Words are not fixed parts of speech. They bend. Square ones can become round if necessary.

        Knowing the rules wasn’t my problem. Knowing how they worked with words was. I love the rules but I don’t have them memorized (I did at one time). I just make my point and then check for clarity and readability. Usually when that process is finished the rules are happy.

    • marion says:

      If the sentence or paragraph just won’t behave, apply my rule [I don’t think it’s original with me though]: When in doubt, take it out.
      Removing the ornery material (with the safety net of “save as”) usually works like a charm.
      Sometimes the material insinuates its way back,in a different place or broken up or whatever. But so much better.

      “Show not tell” is jargon, in my opinion. I guess it means create a dramatic scene, not just a narrative. But sometimes you need a concise narrative thread to connect scenes, so the book isn’t endless.

      • I love that you said “show not tell” is jargon; you’re right. The sentiment is there, but sometimes — especially on online critiques where any Jane or Joe can post their opinion — this phrase is thrown around ALL THE TIME and sometimes the telling is appropriate. Sometimes the showing muddies up a scene and feels forced. The worst critique comment I’ve seen online was “sounds told.” It SOUNDS TOLD. I laughed for awhile on that one.

    • Corinda Marsh says:

      Well said. When I was writing by the rules, I sounded like an English teacher, a stuffy one (I was), but I gave that up and found my voice. I had to do this by writing in character. I took the voice of a male slave during the Civil War and, through him, found my own voice. Stick to the point and forget the rules is my advice. Rules apply only in the editing stage, never in writing.

  24. I used to think the adverb rule was just something people made up due to a dead appendage of a tree trapped inside their…anyway…

    The rule makes sense to me if I go with the explanatory questions. Does the adverb add something to the meaning? Can the adverb be removed and the meaning remain unchanged?

    “She mumbled softly” is redundant. Not only that, but it repeats itself. “Softly” adds nothing.
    “He softly stroked her hair.” As opposed to stroking her hair with a brick?

    Some adverbs add meaning, however, so I will break the rule in rare cases. “She scolded him gently.” “Gently” added meaning, because people often scold harshly.
    Anyway, I just wanted to very quickly throw in my rather simple two cents. 😛

    • PJ, you’ve picked out a perfect example of when a rule should be broken, with the gentle scolding.

      There really isn’t a milder replacement for ‘scold’, in the context you used. I might have suggested ‘reprimand’, but I had an image of the lady in question gently slipping a non-judicial letter of reprimand into the gentleman’s service record. Ugh.

      The limitations of the language sometimes require adverbial modifiers.

      (“She Stroked His Hair With A Brick” would make a really good title for a really bad country song, eh?)

    • that prepositional phrase changed your story from a romance to a murder mystery in 3 words. Well done, sir!

    • Joe Pote says:

      Excellent example, PJ! Thanks!

    • Turney says:

      Some adverbs add meaning, however, so I will break the rule in rare cases. “She scolded him gently.” “Gently” added meaning, because people often scold harshly.

      Not sure I agree… If she scolded him gently – why wouldn’t you just show it? You are assuming these lines are in a vacuum. I would much rather say “She scolded PJ by making him go to his room for fifteen minutes”

      Depends where this is in the story – do we know SHE – what’s she like, do we know what he did ect ect – whats the line before this, whats the line after this – you can easily get this across without using gently

      • Perhaps context is mandatory for all examples. This was an attempt to show the proper use of adverbs and why they are shunned in most cases. Then again, there are purists who want to ban adverbs from the written word, so I keep those on my list alive and help them escape.

  25. Postulated – that one should be able to write at least a book-length work that is wholly constrained by the rules, saying exactly what one intends to say, before choosing to break them. Here’s why.

    Rules are like muscle memory for an athlete – for example, a golfer.

    The technique of golf is best learned through endless hours and bloodied hands on the practice range, developing a swing that will consistently be repeated no matter what the club selected, no matter what the light or the weather. The practice range is flat, and the target unvarying. It’s work, and it’s mind-numbing.

    The art of golf is learned on the course, in developing tactical and strategic shotmaking methodologies that address the varying landscape and sight pictures that make up the course’s architecture, along with the added stress of competition.

    The dependable, repeatable swing is a tool – the key that grants admission to learning the art in a meaningful way.

    All the competitive spirit and innate athleticism one may possess will avail naught if the swing is not absolutely dependable, and made so through years of honing. (This is another way of saying that age and experience will always trump youth and talent…which I find increasingly comforting as the years pass…)

    I know this about golf, because it was a road I attempted to travel – and on which I failed.

  26. Beth K. Vogt says:

    It’s a delicate balance between following the rules and giving freedom to your distinctive voice. Saying “It’s my voice” is no excuse to flagrantly ignore good writing technique — but some authors do just that. And some authors smother their voice under an avalanche of dos and don’ts.

  27. I thoroughly believe in following the rules (for example, don’t use fragments) ONLY until you’re familiar with the craft. Then you can experiment and find your style.

    Take care,
    Jennifer

  28. I believe it was Captain Jack Sparrow who said, “they’re more like guidelines.”

    Sure, “show not tell” makes sense. But we’re telling a story. So perhaps we need to TELL.

    “Avoid adverbs.” Yes, words like “suddenly” can be overused. But words like “furtively” help paint the picture.

    Just my $0.03.

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