“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.”
Many writers obsess about the so-called “rules” of writing. They ask: “What are the rules? What if I’m breaking the rules and don’t know it? What does ‘Show, don’t tell’ mean? What does ‘Write what you know’ mean? How can I get published if I don’t know the rules?”
In my humble opinion, there are only a few “rules of writing” that are so fundamental and universal they truly deserve to be called “rules.” These are the commonsense commandments you must obey or you’re not a writer: “Read every day.” “Maintain a consistent writing schedule.” “Write whether you feel ‘inspired’ or not.” “Finish what you start.” “Never give up.” “Never be boring.”
Any other so-called “rules” are not rules at all. They should be called “principles.” A principle is a general guide to behavior that has proven useful in most situations. There have probably been times when you’ve said, “That’s a good principle, but it doesn’t apply to this situation.” Many people feel anxious at the thought of “breaking” rules. But if we would think of the “general principles of writing” instead of the “rules of writing,” we could relax and be more creative and uninhibited.
Screenwriter Robert McKee put it this way: “Story is about principles, not rules. A rule says, ‘You must do it this way.’ A principle says, ‘This works . . . and has through all remembered time.’ The difference is crucial. . . . Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.”
Science fiction writer Will Shetterly (Dogland), agrees: “There are no rules in writing. There are useful principles. Throw them away when they’re not useful. But always know what you’re throwing away.”
Leonard Bishop, in Dare to Be a Great Writer, suggests that, instead of feeling anxious or hesitant about breaking rules, we should sin boldly. He writes:
If you break a “writing rule,” make it noticeable. Exploit your infraction until your personal technique becomes another rule. . . .
A popular rule is “Don’t tell it, show it!” Yet, if you have a scene with ten people who are important and you cannot devise a way to bring them all into action, then tell [about] them — and keep on telling. . . . Offer them, one at a time, as though introducing the cast of a play. Narrate them, describe them, document them, use exposition to reveal their relationships to one another — until the information is down. Tell it all — interestingly. A writer should be bold, versatile, inventive, imaginative, rebellious.
Do not break any rules at the beginning of a novel. It is advisable to allow the reader to get used to your manner of writing before you astonish them with your daring attitudes. (This is not a rule: it is a suggestion.)
E. B. White (The Elements of Style and Charlotte’s Web) observed, “There is . . . no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.”
Novelist Tom Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) said, “Rules such as ‘Write what you know,’ and ‘Show, don’t tell,’ while doubtlessly grounded in good sense, can be ignored with impunity by any novelist nimble enough to get away with it. There is, in fact, only one rule in writing fiction: Whatever works, works.”
Ralph Keyes, in The Courage to Write, makes the case that a writer’s success depends far more on passion and conviction than on following any set of writing “rules”:
The more I read and write, the more convinced I am that writing has less to do with acquired technique than with inner conviction. The assurance that you have something to say that the world needs to hear counts for more than literary skill. Those writers who hold their readers’ attention are the ones who grab them by the lapel and say, “You’ve got to listen to what I am about to tell you.” It’s hard to be passionate. It means you must put your whole poke on the table. Yet this very go-for-broke quality grabs and holds a reader far more surely than any mastery of technique.
Fantasy master Neil Gaiman offers his own eight rules of writing. His first rule is so basic he expressed it in a single word: “Write.” Most of his other rules are less concise but equally basic: “Finish what you’re writing” and “Fix it.” His eighth and final rule is my favorite, because it repeals all other so-called “rules”—
The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
Forget “rules.” Master the principles and follow them when they help you, abandon them when they hold you back. Relax and enjoy the creative process. Write with joy!
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