Writing 101- The Rules of Writing (and when to break them)

When it comes to writing there are no limits on rules. If you’ve done your homework before jumping into the deep end of word-smithing, chances are, you’ve probably read them. If you’re a bit of a teachers pet you can parrot them out at will.

Gold star for you.

Before I decided to dedicate myself to my writing I spent four years as an amateur editor. It was a great experience that taught me a few things. Some rules, like don’t use the passive voice, are really great rules of thumb and should be taken to heart. Others should be used nine times out of ten.

Let’s go over some of my favorite ‘soft’ rules.

  1. Show, don’t tell. I know that this is the motto of enthusiastic writers-to-be everywhere. It stems from the quote “Do not tell me the moon is shinning, show me the glint of light on broken glass,” by Anton Chekhov. What people often forget is that this a single sentence is pulled from a letter between Chekhov and his brother and it is heavily paraphrased. He was talking specifically about nature. The full quote:  “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.” Chekhov was expressing that if you are describing the natural surroundings of a thing do it gently.
    If you need a paragraph or two to give a little bit of backstory or set the setting…go ahead and just tell me. Don’t bog down your story with poorly contrived conversations that exist purely just to get a point across.
  2. No Prologues. So, here’s the thing. Chances are, if you wrote a prologue, you are attached to it. It was, quite possibly, the scene that set you off to writing. It set your mood and gave the story some unf. It may even have some really great literary nuggets in there. That’s wonderful. Nine times out of then you wrote that prologue for you, not your reader. You can hack it off and the story is still great. But,e very now and then, you need that prologue. It really sets things up and shows something better than any other scene could. If you aren’t sure, ask someone else.
  3. Never use the word ‘said’. Okay, this one is very tricky. I think it might be better used if you say ‘never overuse the word said.’ First and foremost your characters should have unique voices. A line of dialogue ought to tell the reader, flat out, who is speaking. If your characters suffer from sounding too similar…that’s a bigger problem than the word ‘said’ ever could be. Now, sometimes that familiar dialogue tag is necessary. That’s totally okay. But use it wisely.
  4. Avoid cliches. Yes. You absolutely should avoid cliches, like the plague; overusing them is tantamount to beating a long dead horse. I’m funny. Ha-ha. Now that those are out of my system I can go on to say that every now and then a cliche offers comfort and familiarity to a scene that otherwise might not be there. If you want to describe someone with raven-black hair, that’s fine. But don’t fall back on it every single time. As a writer you should be aiming to pen the next greatest cliche, not build your work on them.
  5. Don’t start with the weather. The opening line of one of my works is: “The summers in Clairefield, Virginia were an unrelenting fever….” I fought with myself for days over this line because it breaks this rule. After a while (and sooo many re-writes) I said “Screw it, I love my line and starting somewhere else feels wrong.” It suited the rhythm and the feel of my writing. Maybe I’ll change it in draft four.
    I’m not saying start your story off with “It was a dark and stormy night”, but I once read a morbid humor story that started with that line and it was fabulous.
  6. Don’t describe your characters. This is another one of these writing rules I feel is poorly worded. What I think a writer should avoid is doing a point-by-point description. Don’t tell me Hair color, eye color, height, weight, and build in a single paragraph. Spread it out over their entire introductory scene, starting with the single detail that is most obvious about the character.

What it comes down to is you have to figure out your own style. Yes, there are rules, and you have to work with them but keep in mind that people have broken these rules time and time again to great effect.


6 thoughts on “Writing 101- The Rules of Writing (and when to break them)

  1. Agreed! This is why I like to think of rules as guidelines. No rule is a 100% ironclad absolute.

    I’m glad you brought up the “show don’t tell” one, because as important as that rule is, there are some occasions where a drawn-out, shoved-in, completely transparent “why don’t you tell me about such-and-such!” scene actually hurts the story more than helps it. Sommmmmetimes, you just gotta tell the info so you can move on. The momentum of the story is more important.

    I’ve actually heard the opposite of #3. I’ve heard “ONLY use said.” Well, not only, but that you should use “said” about 90% of the time, with 9% reserved for “asked,” and 1% for everything else. The reason being that “said” is invisible while every other word (announced, remarked, inquired, pontificated, etc) calls too much attention to itself and disturbs the flow. I get that, which is why I do use “said” most of the time, but I get bored with it after awhile when it’s all “said said said said said.”

    #5 made me chuckle cuz my novel’s opening line is about the weather too, ha. I know this is frowned upon, but it serves a very deliberate purpose in mine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right!?! I mean, okay, I get these rules, I understand their place in the world of writing, but in the grand scheme of things every author has to find their style, and the inherent flow of their story. Rules be damned. Or at least set in the corner to think about what they’ve done.

      Liked by 1 person

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