Writing rules – helpful or not?

Jo Frost

Writing rules – don’t you love ‘em? Do this, don’t do that. I wonder if anyone’s ever added them all up? I’d try it myself if I ever had a few months to waste.

You might get the impression I don’t like them, but actually that’s not the case. Even if I’ve seen many of them before it’s always helpful to read them again, and if nothing else they can provoke some interesting debate.

For what it’s worth, here are my own rules. I can’t claim any originality here, but these are derived and distilled from the advice I’ve found most helpful:

  1. Write! Start, and keep going. A writer writes. And the more they write, the better they’ll get.
  2. Enjoy it – but also expect it to be work, and really hard work at times.
  3. Focus on quality. Never stop trying to improve – and a big part of that is keeping going (as in #1).
  4. Revise and revise again. Your first draft will be a deeply flawed rough diamond if you’re lucky, and total garbage if you’re not. But something much better will emerge as you keep hacking away at it.
  5. If you’re serious about publishing – whether self- or conventionally – you must get your work edited, reviewed and/or beta-read by someone whose judgement you trust. You will never achieve your best working totally on your own.
  6. Take careful notice of all the rules and advice you read, even when you don’t think you completely agree with it. This applies especially to advice from experienced writers, agents and publishers. These people know what they’re talking about. Having said that, writing is more art than science and no-one is always right about everything, and much advice is contradictory, so you will need to be selective in how you apply it all. And remember …
  7. … there is technically no such thing as ‘never’ in writing. Adverbs, adjectives, exclamation marks, parentheses and the myriad other things frequently decried – they are all tools at your disposal. But remember there are reasons why you’ve been warned about them. The best advice is to use them sparingly, because your writing will generally be improved by their absence.
  8. Some ‘nevers’ – like don’t start a book with a dream sequence, a prologue or the weather – are really more about fashion or personal opinion than anything else. That said, if you’re trying to get conventionally published then it’s undoubtedly wise to abide by what agents and publishers are saying about such things. (I’m not at the moment – probably a good thing since BASIC Boy starts with a dream sequence, with weather mentioned in the second paragraph – hmmm…)
  9. Try to avoid clichés. Find fresh, more interesting (but appropriate and meaningful) ways to say everything.
  10. Use the best words to tell your story, and not more than necessary. Cut out what isn’t really needed. It will usually take several drafts to do this effectively (see #4 above), and later drafts will almost always be shorter, sharper and more readable as a result.
  11. Finally … always be positive, work hard at your craft and keep chasing your dreams – whatever they may be. I believe that success, in whatever form that might take, will come if you do that. For most of us that won’t be becoming a full-time, best-selling author – but even that is possible and if that’s your dream, then great. But success might mean simply becoming a good writer, producing work you can be proud of, that gives you and some others pleasure. And if you write pretty much for your own enjoyment, rather than to be published, feel free to ignore any or all rules, including those above.

That’s it. I could add more, but for me that pretty much covers it.

And I didn’t even mention ‘show don’t tell’, POV or speech tags! Not because I don’t care about such things, but more that if I start listing all the fiddly stuff I look at while editing my work then this post will go on forever. No-one wants that. Maybe some other time, you luck things.

13 thoughts on “Writing rules – helpful or not?

  1. Now this is a list of rules I can follow! I just did a semi-rant/rebuttal on my blog about traditional rules like the ones you pointed out in number 8, but I definitely agree with the ones you’ve outlined in this post. Writing should be about the experience, not about constraining yourself and your work.

    • Thanks for visiting. Glad we’re in agreement. I think there’s a growing recognition that rules are all well and good but you have to be smart about how you apply them, not follow all of them blindly. That becomes easier as you gain experience – at least in theory …

      • In theory, indeed. I think that people should realize that rules outside of concrete grammar and spelling rules are really guidelines. In any case, the rules you presented should be what writers focus on!

  2. I love your list, all good advice. i must admit I am adverse to dream sequences, but it was fine in BASIC BOY, it gets annoying when the main character has a dream in every chapter. 🙂 Love Basic Boy

    • Thanks for commenting, and your kind words about BB. I’m not averse to dream sequences myself, but I imagine they can be (and have been) overused, or maybe become a lazy way to move the plot along. And I wouldn’t ever end a story with ‘ .. and then he woke up and found it was all a dream …’!

      • Hahah no never, except in the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode when Joss Whedon set it in a mental hospital and everything that ever happened was in all Buffy’s delusional head – great episode.

  3. Most of these are simply good advice made into rules. So I tend to see them for what they are, good advice. People, like you and I, tend not to like “rules” If we look upon the sensible ones as good advice, we feel better about them. I would never say to someone… follow these rules or your book will be crap! But I would say, here’ some advice I’ve found useful… 🙂

    • Yes, I think that’s a good distinction to make. Advice you can take or leave, whereas ‘rule’ implies compulsion, a black-and-white perspective. Of course there are some things that are objective truth whether we like it or not – e.g. spelling and rules of grammar etc. – but many others are rather more subjective, including many off-quoted ‘rules’.

      • You got it in one! 😀 Obviously spelling and basic grammar are definite rules to be followed and are there for a reason. Nobody want to read a work full of misspellings and awful grammar mistakes. Anyone who would argue with that is an idiot. Beyond that it’s pretty much a matter of sifting the chaff from the wheat to make it more digestible. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Are clichés always bad? | Christopher Peter

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