Writing Rules are Just Tools

Rules signIf 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?

  1. Eva says:

    I believe this site holds some rattling fantastic info for everyone. “Philosophy triumphs easily over past evils and future evils but present evils triumph over it.” by La Rochefoucauld.

  2. Joe Duncko says:

    I think it’s funny when an English teacher says “even though it sounds right, and everyone else does it, it’s wrong”. I understand the importance of good grammar as much as the next guy, but a language is simply a standardized way of communication. And if everyone does it, it’s standardized. So… where’s the issue? Languages evolve – they are not never changing.

  3. Peter DeHaan says:

    I fear that following some of these rules will change the “voice” or style of my writing.

  4. lorie says:

    One of my favorite books on writing is Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale–she espouses that you must first KNOW the rules before you can creatively and craftily break them. It’s a great read on knowing how and when to break the rules–I highly recommend it.

  5. Jungo says:

    Rules, I hate them! I make it my mission no to think about them and just write. I belief when people focus on “writing rules” they tend to write bad stories, there is no passion (not all writers). The only rule I think should matter would be in grammar (not in the dialogues). Rules censors the voice of a writer, in my opinion.

  6. Charlie says:

    I heard your “Show not tell,” as “Put yourself in the scene, as narrator or as character, then write what you see, hear, taste, touch, smell.” As a result, when I record telephone conversations, I imagine myself as narrator hearing the phone conversation. As such, unless I record as the person on the phone, I record only one side of the conversation.

    Is this proper? Second, I am trying to do interpretations of the Gospels. Of course, the Gospels are heavy on dialogue. An interpreter of the Gospel in a fictional setting, I must not only record the extended dialogue, the Sermon on the Mount, but must interpret this dialogue and show how it sets in the original format.

    I heard dialogue kills action and a modern novel needs action. Kill the dialogue. How can this be done and still be faithful to the project?

  7. Gwen says:

    The rule that says you can’t end a sentence with a preposition. This baffles me as you see so many great, classic books – and some recently written ones too – that break this rule!

  8. LL Derr says:

    Oh my, I NEVER follow the rules during first draft. In fact I’m pretty sure I break every one in the book, and I have not ever cared one wit if I did. Not in the beginning.

    I used to get so bogged down in editing while writing I had to revert to the following process:

    I ‘talk’ everything into a recorder. Everything. I even act out my characters. For some reason the act of talking my story out makes it flow better and I don’t get hung up on details, or how horrible the first draft can be.

    2nd draft: Revise for flow, holes, weak dialog, weak characters, weak everything.

    3rd draft: I admit I don’t like to edit my own work at this stage. I hand it out to critique groups (close ones) and a professional editor. I must have an editor, otherwise I miss things because I’ve read it a dozen times, or I end up over-editing and mucking up the writing all together.

    Ignoring the rules until I am ready to send the work off in polished form just works for me.

  9. Kariss Lynch says:

    I just finished my first novel, and many times during the process, I grew frustrated because of “rules” I was told I should keep. As I kept writing, I began to understand that the rules are best followed and applied when I am using them through the filter of my own voice. When I stopped focusing on what I was “supposed” to do and focused on the story, the rules came more natrually, and story and rules meshed.

  10. Rachel Spies says:

    the one rule that has always stuck with me is “m&m” (of course after one of my favorite candies). “m&m” stands for method & meaning – the method you use to write should help reveal your ultimate meaning of the text. my high school english teacher introduced that to me, and it has stayed with me all these years.

  11. ‘Story rules’ can get in my way, especially if writing genre for a specific house. Guess that could be a bit different now that self-pubbing has gotten so much more acceptable and widespread.

    That being said: what to me is never-to-be-broken guideline: incorporate a clean, strong writing style w/good content. Translation: let subtext do a lot of the talking; don’t use run-on after run-on sentence; don’t spoon-feed me description w/a gazillion similies. (Brings me back to subtext, doesn’t it?)

  12. Thank you for that! I love the rules but also love the fact that they can be broken. I use the rules of writing as guidelines only. When I write my first draft, I always end up with a lot of telling instead of showing. But as my writing instructor once told me, it’s okay as long as you go back and edit, edit, and edit some more. I take chapters at a time and work on the showing part when I’ve run out of things to tell.

  13. Writing rules are helpful. IMO they free us up to even more creativity and they force us to be better writers.

    I know in my own writing, since I’ve learned “the rules” and started applying them, the quality of my writing improves with every page.

    I’ve never felt stifled by them.

  14. Reba J. Hoffman says:

    I think rules come in handy to help the reader follow the story. That being said, I don’t like to read stories by the same author that were written exactly like all their previous books using the exact same formula and rules. In cases like that, the story becomes too predicitable and I lose interest.

  15. HI,

    I’m your new blog subscriber! Talk about synchronicity. Your post is EXACTLY what I needed to hear right now. Thanks you!

  16. Shilpa says:

    Writing rules have almost always choked my writing. Hence, my first draft is always devoid of them. Later while revising, I input it if I feel it is absolutely essential. Thanks for the post. I was feeling a wee bit guilty about not following them! 😛

  17. I guess the thing is, writing is about story telling. That’s why some people can break the rules some of the time and make it work.

    I believe a writer will become more adept at using language from reading good books, writing a lot, and studying the craft of writing.

    As this happens, the natural outcome will be that his first and later drafts will become less full of rule breakers put in from ignorance (because he’ll know how to avoid them when they don’t move the story along). As he becomes more skilled, the rule breakers he does indulge in will still cause the story to work, so they’ll be okay.

    Other than that, for the first draft, the writer should just get the story out and not worry about it.

  18. Well, I’m Indie published so I feel I have to follow the rules pretty closely. I don’t think I have the right to break the rules until I am a best seller. But, with that in mind, literary rules are based on trends. I can’t afford to be a trend setter in this area yet.

  19. I like to think of the rules as guidelines. Great and effective in most situations, but in others more flexibility is needed. You can break the rules and still excel at craft, as evidenced by the works of the best rule-subverters compared to people starting out with no writing knowledge whatsoever.

  20. Karen says:

    I like the writing rules to use as tools. The writing business is only frustrating when I read several books by the same author who has been published, of course, but has broken all the rules consistently on almost every page.

  21. Knowing the rules means knowing when to break them. Sometimes, the first draft is the only draft….

  22. John Lowell says:

    I think the game “Munchkin” put it best (paraphrasing): you’re allowed to break the rules as long as you don’t get caught.

    I love the rules most of the time. I quote the rules to people in my group. I have a rant about the word “suddenly” I do about every two weeks which starts, “Burn this word from your vocabulary.”

    That said, my favorite sentence (thus far) in the work in progress has forty-five words, two commas, two dashes, a semi-colon, open and close parenthesis, open and close quotation marks, a colon, and a period. Rules were definitely made to be broken.

  23. Crafty Mama says:

    As an editor, I love ’em. 🙂 I do know some writers that despise writing rules.

  24. I have to admit, I’m a rule person. It comes from teaching middle school for nine years. I know some people feel rules are limiting, but after reading several books where the rules are broken (badly) I can see the importance of having boundaries. The down side for me, after teaching English for so long, is that they sometimes slow me down when I’m writing even my first draft. I’d like to get past that, but I doubt it will happen at this late date.

  25. I think Writing Rules (caps intended) is one of the reasons it has taken me so long to even consider writing for publication. I’ve been writing “for fun” for eons, but I’ve always thought that having to 1) learn all the rules, and then 2) apply them consistently would just be an impossible task and I’d end up with the most nasty pile of glop ever to come out the tips of a typist’s fingers. You see, I’m a “self-flogger” — one of those people who reads self-help books and ends up in total despair because I know I’ll never be able to live up to the demands required to become More Holy or a Better Wife or the World’s Most Successful Mother.

    However, my current WIP has demanded of me that I at least consider trying for publication, and at the same time God has brought about a number of events in my life that have shown me a few rules, one by one, and I have become intrigued more than overwhelmed. Now I want to learn these rules — I know there are places in my WIP that don’t work, not sure why, and I think these infamous Writing Rules may actually come to my rescue. While I think I’m a terrific writer who seems to have a sort-of built in grammatical intuition, there are definitely things that I can tighten up and work on, so now I’m looking forward (however tentatively) to finding out more about these rules and doing my best to apply them to my WIP.

    Turns out that what I have feared and loathed for so many years may turn out to be a good thing!
    Stacy Aannestad
    WIP: Caddie Emerging — a fictional blog in the key of Truth
    http://caddiemurray.wordpress.com

  26. Jaime Wright says:

    I love your point #2. I’m immersed in draft #1 of my WIP and was writing a measly amount each day because I was trying to follow “the rules”. Last week I through off the ties the bound me and just wrote. It’ll definitely need a good edit later, but so freeing. When I hit 1200 words in 40 mins I knew I need some room to breathe. It felt good. Great post!

  27. I admit, I’m kind of a rule-follower, especially when it comes to grammar and punctuation. That said, when I write first drafts of anything, whether it be a blog post or a piece of a book, I just simply write and don’t worry about rule-following. During the editing process I get tough with rule-following…but I’m not absolutely militant about it either (I will throw in the occasional adverb, because I love them so much!).

  28. I never considered the rules when I wrote my first draft. Some I didn’t even know until a crit partner pointed it out. After many, many revisions, I fixed all the errors & read it again & if it sounded better the other way, I changed it back.

    I read so much & am exposed to so many styles that I trust that part of me to recognize what what works & what doesn’t. I’ve come to hate adverbs, but occasionally they work.

    I notice well-known authors breaking these rules all the time & their stories are good regardless. Perhaps I’ll “get” to break them, too, if I ever get to publishing a second book, but I think, for the most part, those guidelines are too deeply entrenched.

  29. Sixteen years of Catholic school tends to make me a rule slave – but I agree with the importance of a first draft for creativity. Rules will always be there, apply them in the edit phase.

  30. Loree Huebner says:

    Love this post. The rules are challenging for me.

    On the first draft, I do throw the rules down and just write.

  31. Melody says:

    My take on the rules has always been the following: You have no right to break any rules unless you know them. But once you know them…have at it. 🙂

  32. A writer is fooling himself if they are not at least partly aware of the rules. You should have the basics in your skull when writing a first draft. Surely the second draft is where the body of your work needs the rules applied with scrutiny.

  33. Erin Healy says:

    Rachelle, at ACFW I’ll be teaching a continuing education class called “Sometimes It’s Better to Tell Than Show.” I’ll be talking about learning how to think of rules as techniques. One wouldn’t try to become an artist and expect to be great without learning the fundamental principles of perspective and color and line and so on. The fundamental principles and techniques of great writing are NOT to be “bludgeoned” but learned, mastered, and then adapted to the artist’s vision and skill.

  34. Ginny Martyn says:

    I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and it helped me with this, particularly the chapter about first drafts.

  35. Kate says:

    This answer is not going to be helpful to anyone in any way.

    I trust my gut when it comes to following rules.

    I totally agree that the first draft is the right-brain process and all other drafts are the left brain. I don’t know if I follow any writing rules at all during this time and I personally don’t care if I do. The first draft is about content; editing is about rules. And if I have to go to rules, it’s because something doesn’t flow or sound right. But it’s all about gut instinct and there’s really no absolute rule as to when I use them.

  36. As a child, I never colored outside the lines. So, as a writer, the first time I was told that it was okay to start a sentence with ‘But’ or ‘And’ my conscience went into cardiac arrest. But freedom arrived to resuscitate me! And soon every other sentence I wrote began with ‘But’ and ‘And.’ I was flying high. The last thing I heard before the crash was: “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”

  37. Lisa Buske says:

    The first thing I think of when I hear the “rules of writing” are my high school and college level English classes. I just attended the Greater Philsadelphia Christian Writer’s Conference and my head was spinning as I listened to the different presenters share the “rules” to follow and not to follow. Almost all encouraged us to NOT listen to our English teachers yet depending on the author, agent, and editor – their “rules” were all different. At first my head was spinning trying to determine who was correct – today’s post was a great help. Thank you. You have made it easier to determine what and who to trust. Thank you! Many rules and sometimes…rules are made to be broken.

    Lisa

  38. Susan Bourgeois says:

    I wrote an entire post and lost it because I forgot to insert my e-mail address.

    Don’t you just love Mondays!

    Great post Rachelle and it’s timely for me.

    My daughter and I have read the exact rules you mentioned above.

    We have seen them repeated in numerous writing publications.

    We also realize, as you mentioned, the importance of letting one side of the brain flow as you create the story.

    This confirms everything once again and as always, you provide the best information for writers.

    We are going to continue to let our creative juices flow during the first few drafts.

    We realize that we will be able to refine our work at a later date.

    I’m going to make sure my daughter reads this post.

    I feel it’s a great reminder for all writers not to restrict the creative writing process in the early stages of writing.

    Thank you!

  39. Sarah Thomas says:

    Yes, write the first draft without thinking about the rules–if you can! I’ve done a good bit of newspaper writing, which needed to be fast and accurate. It’s nearly impossible for me to let an error I’m aware of go by. I compromise by getting the entire scene down and then fixing it. Of course, I’ll find plenty of errors I wasn’t aware of when I edit the finished draft. It kind of makes me happy that I was so into the story, I didn’t notice : )

  40. Rose Gardener says:

    I always put my work through a grammar check before sending to a publisher and remove all passivity. Recently I found two passive verbs and set about eradicating them- only to realise they referred to the dead person who was lying on the bed. Rules can be helpful if you use them in a conscious way and only hinder when applied without thought!

  41. Honestly, I love the rules. I appreciate all the writers who have gone before me and figured out what makes a great story. I feel like using the rules is learning from what has worked in the past. Sure, there’s room to break a rule now and then, but sometimes people use “creativity” as an excuse to not learn the basic structure that makes a story work.

  42. Mary Jo says:

    I try to follow the rules. If I can’t think of a way to fix a sentence with a broken rule, I might chuck it or leave it until I can figure out a way to fix it later. But I think I have my own set of rules, which I’ve gathered over the years. I don’t follow the one that someone mentioned about removing all “ing” words. So I guess the rules can be subjective.

  43. Samantha says:

    I’ve been struggling with this myself and sometimes, it does get frustrating. At that point, I back away for a while to take a break. When I return, I’m generally in the mindset that writing the story is what is important not editing. That will come later.

  44. Thanks Rachelle, I find I get frustrated when I try to follow the rules. I’m the type who obsesses about following them to the T. So I started ignoring them, and I enjoy writing a lot more.

    And when I went through a ms revision with my agent and editor, the things that didn’t work got fixed anyway!

  45. Kristen J says:

    The old saying “you can’t break the rules unless you know them first” seems to apply here. I like the idea of just writing to get the ideas out in the first draft, and then using the rules to go back and polish afterward. Sometimes an intelligent choice to break a rule can make for really powerful writing.

  46. Erica Vetsch says:

    It’s kinda like riding a bike. When I got my first two-wheeler, I concentrated so hard on not falling over (following the rules of writing) that I could only focus on the handlebars and the front tire.

    But as I gained confidenced and ability, (got comfortable with the writing rules) I was able to raise my eyes and see the world around me. I was able to enjoy the ride, see and do new things, and even take my deathgrip off the handlebars from time to time.

  47. Wendy says:

    I appreciate rules and I appreciate the exhilarating process of spontaneously breaking them as I write the first draft.
    😀
    ~ Wendy

  48. Writing rules are like speed limits… they are suggestions. 🙂

  49. Jay DiNitto says:

    I generally only see writing “rules” broken with established authors (it may be a bit of confirmation bias on my part). I’d follow them more closely, being an unpubbed author, because I’m personally reserving the right to break the rules until after I’ve established myself.

  50. Anna Banks says:

    Rules were meant to be bludgeoned. Have a great Monday. 🙂

  51. I think they’re helpful, especially for beginning writers. The more I learn the rules, the more it becomes natural to write that way. They are there for good reason.

    However, the more I grow as a writer, the more I learn HOW to break the rules and WHEN to break the rules. Which is something a person can’t do until they know how to follow the rules.

    What’s so cool, is that my brilliant editor, while doing content edits for my debut novel, has even suggested I break some of those rules. I’ve loved this learning experience. Loved, loved, loved.

  52. Rick Barry says:

    As a former editor, I’ve often noticed that John Grisham and other well-known writers occasionally use incorrect punctuation (for example, comma splices), and from time to time they definitely tell rather than show. However, when someone is unfolding a masterfully told story, the average person probably doesn’t even notice.

    However, when a newer author presents a weak story peppered with glaring grammar violations and head-hopping viewpoints, then it makes you wonder if this person even knows the rules.

  53. There are rules? Since when?

  54. Michael says:

    While I agree that writing rules are meant to be guidelines, I also feel that rule are no enemy to creativity. I always used the example of Odyssey of the Mind competitions. While they are heavily regulated, they also turn out amazing creativity. When I was coaching, I would go through each rule with the kids and say, “If this is what we CAN’T do, then tell me what we COULD do.”

  55. carol brill says:

    Hi, a wise writing mentor taught me early on to learn the rules and the craft of writing. Once you know them, you can make a creative choice to break them…much different from a beginner’s mistake.
    I agree with Jackie, some are harder to take when broken. I’m a stickler about POV too.

  56. otin says:

    I’m not even really sure about the rules to tell you the truth. I just write it out by hand and then when I transfer it to the computer I try to make it sound better. I’m not an English major and I don’t have a degree, but I can tell a good story.

  57. Edwina Cowgill says:

    Thanks for a great post! 95% of the time I find the rules very frustrating and restrictive. I will remember this post the next time I want to scream over the rules!

  58. Thanks so much, Rachelle. Grace over law always resonates with my heart. However, as a writer newbie and a first timer at She Speaks this year, I must confess I probably need to affirm my knowledge of “the rules” before I give myself permission to wander. Do you all have any resources to recommend for the “10 (or more) Commandments of Compelling Writing?” 😉 Thanks in advance…

  59. Jeffo says:

    It drives me crazy when I see someone give a knee-jerk ‘show, don’t tell’ crit when the ‘tell’ works perfectly in the context of the piece.

    As far as ‘what do I think of writing rules’ — I don’t really think of them much while I’m in the actual act of writing. When I’m writing, I have a scene in my head that I’m trying to get out on paper. Getting it somewhere close to what I see/hear in my head trumps most of the ‘rules’.

  60. Jackie Ley says:

    You make an important point that many of the rules make sense because they have a real effect on how engaged the reader becomes with our writing. I know there are successful writers who break the rules but I’ve rarely come across rule-breaking in the novels I read and not been a little irked by it. Maybe that’s because, as a writer, I can’t turn off my critical faculty, but no matter how high profile the writer, if they suddenly skip to omniscient POV, for example, I find myself asking ‘how did the narrator know that?’

  61. Thanks for that balanced post, Rachelle. It’s like any art – you have to know the basic rules before you can experiment creatively. Or like the ten commandments which are in place to help us rather than stifle us!

    Love the second point which is a necessity for that initial creativity.

  62. Nancy Kelley says:

    I know the rules well enough to follow them–for the most part. They’ve been engrained in my head to the point that I cringe when I see an -ing verb. However, when removing that verb creates a clunky sentence, the participle stays. Rules exist to smooth the writing out, to make the reading experience better. Slavish obedience to them helps no one.

  63. I’m a firm believer in knowing the rules, so you can break them 🙂

  64. I love this post. I’ve had crit partners that are like “ing” Nazis, or “ly adverb” Nazis. They drive me nuts. Or maybe I should say, “Critiquing, they worked heartily at driving me crazy.”

    Point number 3 is the point I think a lot of people miss. If it’s not broken, it doesn’t need fixing. I’ve seen some writers with wonderful voice, mangle their stuff on rewrite after people tell them they can’t use the word “was” or they shouldn’t write in an omniscient voice.

  65. Taz says:

    For me, this is almost the post to end all posts. As you say, if we’ve been doing this thing for a while we already “know” all the rules, but I needed to hear it (or read it).

    The highlight for me was point 2 because I can never follow rules during the ‘sketch’, I follow them during the ‘flesh out’. I totally get bogged down if I try to be too literary during the first draft and the story suffers big time.

    This was just what I needed to know to confirm my suspicions on “The Rules”. Can I hug you now or later? You’ve set my mind at ease again 😉

  66. Niki Turner says:

    For those who tend toward legalism, the “writing rules” can effectively suffocate creative expression and engender a terrible case of judgment when we read books by popular authors who break “the rules” on almost every page. Thank you for providing a balanced, optimistic, and rational perspective in this post!

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