Are Writing Rules a Myth?

Image Credit: Brad Harrison (www.freeimages.com)

Image Credit: Brad Harrison (www.freeimages.com)

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Because of how many times I find myself having to address the concept of “writing rules” with my editing clients and in the writing classes I teach, I thought it might be time to talk about it in an open forum. Let’s call the elephant out and decide whether to keep him as a pet or set him free.

Are writing rules a myth?

The answer is yes.

And no.

Let me give you an example of a true writing rule.

Internal dialogue shouldn’t be placed in quotation marks because quotation marks signal audibly spoken dialogue.

That’s a rule. Every writer needs to follow it. A rule is authoritative. Unless the rules change, we should follow them.

True writing rules are rare.

Most of the time, what we call writing rules are actually writing guidelines.

That might seem like semantics, but it isn’t.

Writing guidelines tell us the best practices to follow to achieve success. These things should be done 99% of the time. There are exceptions, but guidelines are how you should normally act for the best results.

Rule: Don’t put a metal fork in your microwave because you’ll burn up your microwave.

Guideline: If you don’t want food to splatter all over your microwave, bake onto the sides, and start to stink a few days later, put a cover over your food before you heat it up and use the correct setting on the microwave.

See the difference? It’s stupid to break a rule. If you break a rule, it never comes with good results (unless your desired result is a negative one).

If you violate a guideline, you might be okay. You might not. It’s a calculated risk.

When it comes to the craft of writing, the distinction between rules and guidelines is an essential one to make because I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon among writers. If you call something a rule, when it’s actually a guideline, then without fail a conversation will begin about how we need to “know the rules to break them.” For whatever reason, many writers feel like they need to be rule-breakers.

The problem with that is a big one. We get so bent out of shape by the word rules that the focus shifts from what it should be on—making our writing the best it can be.

And the mantra about “knowing the rules so we can break them” quickly becomes an excuse to ignore good advice for how to make our book better. (Want to tweet that?)

By the very definition of best practice guidelines, we lose that excuse.

If we’re going to stray from these guidelines, we need to make sure we’re getting a bigger improvement from it than we’ll be losing in what it costs because violating these guidelines always costs something. If we’re going to violate them, it should be a conscious, well-reasoned decision. A cost-benefit analysis.

Asking ourselves why we’re violating the guideline and what bigger benefit it’s giving us also helps us avoid another trap called “My book is the exception.”

Since guidelines are normative, but not infallible, the “my book is the exception” thought train turns into a bug zapper for many writers.

“Those guidelines are only right 99% of the time. I’m the 1%.”

You might be. But the truth is that more writers think they’re the 1% than can possibly be the 1%. We are probably not the exception. Our books are probably not the exception. That’s usually an excuse we make because we don’t want to honestly face the problems with our story or our writing. We don’t want to have to revise again. We don’t want to have to put in the grueling work of learning to make it better.

Try that in the rest of your life and see how well it serves you. Quick fixes and ignoring the truth almost always lead to disaster later on.

Don’t try to be innovative in the craft of writing. That’s not where brilliance is hiding, waiting to be found. Be innovative in your plot and in your characters and fresh in the emotions. Those are the things readers talk about long after they’ve set the book down.

I’d love to hear from you even if you disagree with me. What’s your opinion on the existence of writing rules?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of View is now available! (You might also want to check out Internal Dialogue or Showing and Telling in Fiction.)

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