To Follow the “Rules” or Not: That is the Question

Rules. Advice. Words of wisdom. We writers are bombarded with information on how to write better, how to make our work more saleable, how to increase our daily word count etc. There are books on the subject. Blogs (including this one, which I hope you all find helpful ~winsome smile~). Whole conventions, with scores of panels, staffed by experts.

One person will insist you must follow X rule in order to succeed, while the next says “No!” It’s rule Y!”. Still others will argue in favor of no rules at all—rules only impair creativity, they say, and you will never achieve greatness by following them.

So…who’s right? The “follow the rules” people, or proponents of “to hell with rules!” (THWR)?

Answer: both are right. And wrong. Like most things, it’s not black-and-white. It depends on whether you’re talking about craft, or method; where you’re at in the writing process (i.e. a beginner or more experienced); and the purpose for which you’re writing (e.g. just having fun or under contract to produce a novel), to name but a few factors that come into play.

Craft

When it comes to craft, I believe that there is at least one hard-and-fast rule that ought to be followed by everyone; newbies and crusty, experienced types alike:

“Omit needless words.” Strunk & White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed., p. 23*

I cannot say it any better. All of your words should matter. Cut filler, as this only distances your reader from the meat of your story.

Examples (pgs. 23 & 24):

there is no doubt but that                               doubtless

in spite of the fact that                                     although

Repetitive description should also be avoided—there’s no need to describe the same thing (e.g. your damsel in distress’s beautiful, shining, golden hair) three different ways. Pick the most resonant and best-written sentence or passage and stick with that.

Now, the THWR-types may argue that wordiness could be considered a matter of style, and therefore this rule ought not to be relentlessly followed, either. It is true that certain styles call for verbosity—Victorian influenced writing comes to mind. But in such a case the extra words aren’t needless; they are considered. Most often there is no reason for filler, and the author simply hasn’t given the matter thought, and/or hasn’t edited each sentence for brevity.

There are also many rules that, in my opinion, are best followed by those seeking to learn the craft. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard new authors object to a critique with something along the lines of, “Frank Herbert shifts point-of-view multiple times on one page in Dune, so it can so be done!” Well, yes, it can, but not necessarily by you. Not yet. The problem is this: many writers who respond this way weren’t even aware they were shifting point-of-view, let alone doing it for specific effect and in a way important to their story.

Most often only more experienced writers, or gifted newcomers, can play with things such as basic grammar, point-of-view, tense, passive voice, cliché etc., in a way that works on the page. First learn the rules—what they are and the purpose they serve—then experiment with breaking them. And accept that, like all experiments, it may not succeed.

This is where the books/blogs/panels come in handy. There are a multitude of resources to help a new writer learn, or a more experienced writer brush up on, the basics. Of course you may need to depart from some of the rules to pen the next literary masterpiece, lauded for its extreme creativity and genius; or…maybe not. Anyway, that isn’t everyone’s goal.

Method

Here’s where I tend to agree with the THWR camp to a greater degree, at least when it comes to writing as an artistic endeavor.

Writing is a personal thing. Some people write 10,000 words a day; some 500 a month. Many authors swear by outlining and planning down to the smallest freckle on their protagonist’s nose; others don’t know what they will say until their fingers hit the keyboard (or grasp pen and paper). There are night owls and morning people; those who write when inspiration strikes and single moms with two jobs who write during every coffee break. Those who only write when the moon is full. And so on.

I tend to believe the “butt-in-chair” philosophy (that is: make time for writing each day; words will amass and momentum will help carry you) but am hesitant to say it works for everyone, or is the only way to succeed. And I am skeptical of anyone who proclaims that their way is the Only Way, or the Best Way, and that all others are doomed to failure. For every variation in method, you can probably find a successful role model.

So, do what works for you. Read the advice of others and, if it appeals, give it a try. If you find you love outlining, great! Go with that. But don’t get discouraged if a certain method doesn’t fit. Don’t believe it means you’re doomed to failure.

Of course, this all comes with an important caveat: if you are under contract to produce, you probably won’t have the luxury of working only according to your ideal method. You may have to write for six hours after work each evening, even though Mercury is in retrograde and your dog is barking in the next room. That’s the thing: writing is an art form but also sometimes a job. If you’re lucky enough to be getting paid, you may have to toil under less than ideal circumstances, just as you would at any other job.

So, for what they’re worth, those are my thoughts on the “rules.” What do you think? Do you agree or disagree?

 

* For my money, The Elements of Style is the best book on the rules of writing and I highly recommend it. Somehow they even manage to make the topic funny.

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  • Paul Weimer

    Rules are useful guidelines, a scaffold to build your work upon.

    But nothing can remain in a scaffold forever.

    • Erika Holt

      “Guidelines”! Perfect word. Now why didn’t I think of that… 🙂

  • Kevin Cockle

    Seems a reasonable take to me.  “Elements of Style” is the only writing book I own: seems to be working so far.

    • Erika Holt

      Hehe–yes it does!

  • Galen Dara

    oh yes, this resonates.

    thank you for the guidelines and reminders.

    • Erika Holt

      <3

  • Galen Dara

    Random, this article just happened to pop up in my twitter feed this morning: advice to artists trying to develop a style and hone their skills. –>

    http://theartorder.com/2012/03/09/honing-your-vision/?utm_medium=referral&utm_source=pulsenews

    A lot of similarities to your post here.

    • Erika Holt

      Thanks!

  • Great advice, Erica.

    I’ve got a decent collection of books on writing, built over the last 12 years or so. I’ve found most of them well-intentioned and full of decent advice. My personal mantra towards writing advice has become “Guidelines more than rules.” 
    The “rules” tend to be thing that are potentially confusing to the reader if done by accident. There’s a reason why someone is telling you not to switch points of view within a scene, for example. Once you fundamentally understand why its dangerous (because it’s difficult to do without leaving the reader confused as hell), the closer you are to being able to pull it off successfully.

    • Erika Holt

      Totally! Well said! And thank you. 🙂

  • Linda Adams

    A lot of the rules were developed out of things beginning writers did very badly or misused.  But what ended up evolving is “Do not try” rather than “Learn how to do well.”  And some writers fall back on the rules as if they were, indeed, black and white.   

    I wanted to include a dream sequence in my novel.  I’d read some very good ones, including in a book with dreams as the story.  I knew all the pitfalls, and I wanted to do the dream sequence well.  It was going to have an obvious role in the story.  But I wanted to learn more about how to do them well.  Except, no information.  Almost every site I went to said, “Do not try.”  I finally posted the question on a writer’s message board.  I figured someone must have used one.  Writers: “It’s a bad idea.” Me:  “I want to do it well.”  Then I explained how it was going to be tied into the story, that it was going to be very short.  We’re talking 50 words in an entire novel that occur in the early part of the middle.  “Well, if you know what you’re doing …” and the writers were slowly backing away as if they didn’t want to catch whatever I had.

    Even the thing about published authors “breaking the rules” pops up, with writers telling other writers, “Well, yes, he can do it because he’s published. But you can’t because it’s breaking the rules.”  We’re supposed to read novels and learn how to write from them — but only to the point where the author breaks the rules, and then we have to stop?  I feel like it’s ridiculous for a writer to tell me “Don’t break the rule” without even assessing if something works — and that happens a whole lot.  It seems like the rules are a substitute for some form of control in an area where, once we send out the story, we don’t have any.

  • My rule of thumb (no pun intended) when it comes to the “rules” is this: if you’re going to break the rules, do it carefully, and on purpose.  If you know the rule, and understand why it exists, then you’ll be much better off when you break it.

    As you said in the example with regard to Victorian writing, those writers break the rules in a very considered manner.  And breaking the rules in a considered manner is much more likely to produce positive rules than breaking the rules accidentally, or out of ignorance (which is what most inexperienced writers do).Great post!

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