Three Thoughts about Writing Rules
By Brad R Cook
Over the course of a writer’s life we’ll run into so many writing rules – it can be overwhelming or at least confusing. It starts in school when English teachers lay out the rules of grammar, and continues on to creative writing classes that show writers how to craft a story, but then it expands, maybe explodes into a myriad of voices, blogs, and books.
Here are three thoughts about writing rules. I love learning from the greats, the authors who have already struggled through the same woes that every writer faces.
1 – Know the Rules before Breaking Them
Breaking the rules is fine, but it’s best to know them before you break them. If you want a prologue, put in a prologue, but understand why prologues are discouraged and ask yourself if this could fit into the story. Don’t like the oxford comma, that’s okay, but then you have to find a way to separate ideas within a sentence. The point is, when you know the rules, you know when it is best to bend them, or break them. We write in a world where smashing convention can lead to greatness, the creation of a classic, but if a writer breaks a hundred rules in single piece it isn’t ground-breaking, it’s seen as amateur.
2 – Read Them All and Adopt the Best
If you want to be a great writer, study the habits of your favorite authors and adopt the best for your routine. Stephen King’s On Writing is a great place to start, and I still follow his rule about adverbs.
Mark Twain famously said, “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action.”
Maya Angelou said, “The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.”
Pixar has 22 Rules of Storytelling, and Neil Gaiman has eight, but Anton Chekhov might have one of my favorite rules, he said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
3 – Take All These Rules with a Grain of Salt
There are so many rules out there that a writer might go insane trying to remember them all. No one is an expert. There is no one way to write. For every rule, there is a successful author who broke it. So study the rules, immolate the greats, but know that at the end of the day writing is personal. Stories are told the way you want them – just understand that some rules make your novel more desirable to an agent or publisher.
Ernest Hemingway said, “There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it's like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”
C.K. Chesterton said, “I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.”
However my point is best made by W. Somerset Maugham who said, “There are three rules for writing a novel, unfortunately no one knows what they are.”
If you’d like to learn more rules of writing, the Write Pack Radio has a couple of episodes that will help you.
Pixar’s 22 Rules for Storytelling – http://www.blogtalkradio.com/writepackradio/2015/06/28/pixars-22-rules-of-storytelling
The Writing Rules According to Elmore Leonard – http://www.blogtalkradio.com/writepackradio/2015/04/05/the-writing-rules-according-to--elmore-leonard
I also have written two blog posts on what the great writers have said about writing, find them here.
…And Now a Word from the Masters - http://www.thewriterslens.com/2012/09/and-now-word-from-masters.html
…And Now a Word from the Masters Part II - http://www.thewriterslens.com/2012/10/and-now-word-from-masters-part-ii.html
Do you have a favorite writing rule? Let me know in comments below.
Brad R. Cook, author of the YA steampunk series, The Iron Chronicles, http://www.amazon.com/Iron-Horsemen-The-Chronicles/dp/0989207951. He currently serves as Historian of St. Louis Writers Guild after three and half years as its President. Learn more at www.bradrcook.com, on Twitter @bradrcook https://twitter.com/bradrcook, or on his blog Thoughts from Midnight on tumblr http://bradrcook.tumblr.com/