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8 Rules of Writing That Are Easy to Break

December 31, 2013
P writing blue

“Always know what words mean before you publish them.”- That’s a rule I probably should follow.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are a lot of rules to writing (and I think I just broke five of them with this opening sentence), so many that I won’t even try to list all of them.  As an amateur, I read about rules of writing because I want to improve.  But I’ve found that when I try to follow the rules too closely, my writing sounds like somebody who is trying to follow the rules of writing.

Since I don’t get paid to write for Dysfunctional Literacy, I’ve decided to write the way I want to write, and I’ve noticed that I tend to break some common rules about writing.  Maybe breaking these rules will keep me from becoming a successful author.  I don’t know.  Maybe breaking these rules will help.  Either way, here are some common rules of writing that I sometimes break.

WRITE EVERY DAY.

Nobody should do anything every day, except eat and sleep.  Even if writers are paid to write (which I’m not), they shouldn’t write every day.  Doing something every day makes people boring.  I should know.  I’ve been told that I’m a boring guy, so I know what makes people boring, and part of being boring is doing the same things every day.  And if you do write every day, don’t tell anybody because then people will expect you to be boring.  If you’re going to be boring, surprise people with it.

I write almost every day, but if I don’t write, I don’t beat myself up over it.

SKIP THE BORING PARTS.

Elmore Leonard gets credit for this one, but other authors (like Stephen King) have mentioned it too.  It’s probably a good rule, but I break it sometimes (maybe because I’m a boring person in real life).  Every once in a while, I intentionally write a scene where nothing happens just to set up a state of being.  Some readers would call it the boring part.  I try to make the boring part not boring so that maybe readers won’t notice it’s a boring part.  I even started a chapter of “The Literary Girlfriend” with the sentence, “This is the part that some authors (and readers) might be tempted skip.”  It got a lot of hits, but I don’t know how many people actually read it.

When I write a boring part, I have my characters think or talk about sex.  Or maybe I throw in an unnecessary fight.  I have a (maybe) boring scene coming up in “The Literary Girlfriend,” so I might throw in a bar fight where Jimmy gets punched out while thinking about sex.  Maybe then it won’t be boring.

I think it’s funny that Stephen King has adopted the “skip the boring parts” rule.  Elmore Leonard said “Skip the boring parts,” and wrote books that were 200 pages long.  Stephen King says “Skip the boring parts” and writes books that are over 800 pages long.  The last Stephen King book that I read 11-22-63 was an 800 page book with a 300 page story.  Maybe Elmore Leonard should have written it.

ONLY USE “SAID” FOR DIALOGUE.

This is another Elmore Leonard rule, and I think it’s a weird rule.  Yeah, using only “said” for dialogue takes the pressure off trying to be creative, but the word “said” is boring, and we’re not supposed to be boring.  My daughter brought home a chart from school with words that are more descriptive than “said” (like “declared” and “exclaimed”).  Should I send her English teacher Elmore Leonard’s list of writing rules?  I tend to use “said” most of the time anyway, but sometimes “said” just isn’t good enough.

DON’T USE ADVERBS.

I don’t think it’s funny when somebody ironically says “Use adverbs sparingly.”  It’s only funny when they’re serious.

Maybe a lot of adverbs are unnecessary, but I don’t know.  An adverb is a part of speech.  I worked hard in school to learn the difference between adverbs and adjectives.  I know when words like “in” and “out” are prepositions and when they’re adverbs.  I know that adverbs don’t have to end with “-ly.”  I know that adverbs modify verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs.  I spent a lot of time in class learning my adverbs.  My teachers devoted a lot of time and energy trying to make us bored students learn about adverbs. I’m going to use them whenever I feel like it, no matter what Mark Twain (or any other successful writer) said.

I shall not let my teachers’ efforts be for nothing.  Stephen King and Mark Twain might say not to use adverbs, but they’re not going to buy my e-books, whether I use adverbs or not, so I’m going to use adverbs.

DON’T START A SENTENCE WITH “THERE” OR “HERE.”

I get this.   Maybe it’s lazy to start with these vague words, but when you’re writing a 60,000+ word story on a blog and not getting paid for it, you should get to be lazy sometimes, especially when we’re not getting paid.

AVOID PASSIVE VOICE

I can be a passive guy sometimes.  I have nothing against the passive voice, but I won’t use the passive tense just to demonstrate that I’m willing to use the passive voice.  I can read a sentence that’s using passive voice, and I won’t notice that it’s in the passive voice.  Do readers really recognize passive voice while they’re reading?  I don’t think most people notice passive voice when they’re reading, and I don’t notice it when I’m writing.

DON’T USE EXCLAMATION POINTS.

I know, the emotion should be conveyed through strong writing (passive voice alert!) and not punctuation, but  I even ALL-CAP dialogue occasionally, and I’m probably not supposed to do that either.

SHOW, DON’T TELL

This is the one rule I intentionally break.  This rule has been driven into my brain (2nd passive voice alert!) for decades in writing groups and classes, but I don’t think the successful authors follow it.  I’ve noticed that famous authors show AND tell.  A writer almost has to do both.  If a writer just “shows,” the reader might not always (or ever) interpret what the action or behavior means.  I think it’s important to “show,” and I try, but it’s just as important to “tell” for the reader’s sake, especially when word limits are small.  When I write a new episode of “The Literary Girlfriend,” I have to assume that there are new readers, so I have to tell the readers what has happened in the previous 40 installments.  Writing a serial is different from writing a novel, but novelists still tell… a lot.  Find me a novelist that doesn’t “tell.”  I bet you can’t find one.

*****

It’s tempting to try to follow all the rules of writing to the letter, especially when the advice is given by successful (prolific) authors.  But I’m not sure I want to emulate prolific writers when chances are that I’m not going to be one.  Maybe NOT following the rules will keep me from becoming a successful writer.  Maybe NOT following the rules will help me develop my own style that readers think is unique (but hopefully not too annoying).  There’s probably a fine line between the two (I broke another rule!).  The rules exist for a reason, so I won’t go out of my way to break them, but if I just happen to break a rule (or eight), I’m okay with it.

*****

I wrote a story.  I read it in front of my class.  And then a bunch of weird stuff happened.

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43 Comments
  1. This is great! It’s good to break some rules, otherwise everybody’s writing would sound the same…BORING! Uh-oh, just broke a couple of rules with my all caps and exclamation mark. : )

    • Hey, if you’re going to break the rules, go all out! And I agree with you about the boring writing, but if everybody followed Elmore Leonard’s writing rules and wrote like Elmore Leonard did, then a lot of really long books would be a lot shorter, and I could finish reading more books. And THAT might be good.

  2. You can break those rules, but it’s best to follow them as much as you can. When they are broken, readers will recognize you’re doing so for this effect or that.

  3. Reblogged this on OLUWADAMILOLA and commented:
    Really helpful

  4. Lloyd C. Douglas (“The Robe,” “Magnificent Obsession”) said never start a story or a chapter with dialog. Maybe he needs that rule but it doesn’t make sense. When you’re writing on the internet, you need a hook, fast, and dialog is one way:

    IDK why I killed him, I tell her.
    You don’t know? She says incredulously. What happened?
    Maybe because he had me by both hands and his dick out and was going to rape me. Maybe I didn’t have to kill him, but I did, and threw him out the train and into the river. May be because he was a street person nobody cared about. Maybe I’m just a son of a bitch and killed him because I could.
    Is that all? She says, obviously shaken.
    No. Here’s what happened.

    I think it’s obvious that you can throw away any rules if they stand in your way. When I was beginning to write seriously in college I was taught by people who were disciples of the great god Hemingway, and chided me for using long, vivid narrative like you see in Cormac, because nobody writes that way anymore.
    But I was good at that and everything else when I wrote, but I ended up neglecting my writing such things. Now I can do many things well, but lush narrative is an effort. I will never be great at it, and it’s my own fault for listening to them.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t ever let anyone tell you how not to write. Write what you write, and if your talent is good, you’ll find everything flows and your characters will fly off the page

    • Wait – this is a really good story. Is it all of these things? Was he street person with his dick out flung into the river by a son of a bitch?
      Please, continue. She said.

  5. Hi, I peeked, hoping to learn, and I did. I weep (bitterly) for lost adverbs. And passive voice was always my favored writing mode. And I hope my boring parts will perk up in the next rewrite. Thank you – Silent

  6. I love breaking rules. I’m a rebel artist anyway, a lawless writer and I use that artistic license they keep talking about when i write too.. I’m a professional “typoist” HA! You will find all kinds of broken rules in my blog posts! It just feels so good, to keep doin’ what ever I want.. LOL

  7. I ain’t breaking any doggone rules!!!!

  8. Go with what you know. Write as often as you can, keep thinking about your topic but not to the point of obsession.

  9. When you write, you end up breaking other writers’ rules sooner or later. We all come up with our own set of rules, because we have to find whatever works for us. And that’s fine. Otherwise, we would all sound the same.

    • That’s true, we’re going to break somebody’s rules sometimes no matter what, but Elmore Leonard’s? Or Stephen King’s? I was in a writer’s group once, and if somebody broke a Stephen King rule, this one guy would pull out a copy of On Writing and start reading from it and then lecture us. We probably should have kicked him out for doing that, but we didn’t.

  10. How can you always show and not tell in a blog? It’s not a screenplay. Then again, I’ve not read your whole blog. Maybe The Literary Girlfriend is a treatment for a screenplay.

    Who said you were boring and passive? Have you been divorced? That sounds like something an ex wife would say. While reaching into your pockets for the money you don’t make blogging.

    Elmore Leonard? Do people follow his rules? He primarily wrote Westerns,and crime and suspense stories. So I don’t know how applicable his rules are to blogs. His rules also include, “if it sounds like writing, rewrite it.” That sounds like someone on acid talking. He also got remarried the same year his former wife DIED (all caps) so maybe he’s not the final word on anything?

    Thank you for giving me permission not to write everyday. Whew. That was killing me. Do you ever reply to comments? Do i have to insert emoticons or gratuitous sex pictures for you to reply? That’s cool if you don’t. Very “cosmic drifter” kind of thing. I like that.

    Happy New Year.

    • I like the term “cosmic drifter,” but I’m not sure it really fits me. Please, please, please don’t post graphic pictures because I’d have to delete them (but I might look at them first). I guess this means that if you want me to respond, DON’T post graphic pictures; just threaten to post graphic pictures.

      • I just want to know WHO you are. I’m needy that way.
        I’m a stalker.
        I’m really a man.
        I’m anonymous and it’s very Last Tango in Paris.
        My email is anonymous so it’s still Last Tango in Paris.
        What is Last Tango in Paris? My parents got divorced because of that. Or maybe they were never married.
        I think i was adopted, anyway.
        I camera shy; I think pictures steal your soul. I will not send pics to people. Just letting you know now, I won’t do it, I say.
        But Literary Girlfriend is FF – freakin’ funny.

  11. Reblogged this on runinonbeyond.

  12. Call Me Dani permalink

    Reblogged this on Just a Little Innocent.

  13. These aren’t rules. That’s just writing methods and formulas that certain writers made up to help themselves write more efficiently, to keep their writing style, or set up their writing routine. But what works for Tolstoy wouldn’t work for Leonard, what works for Hemingway won’t work for Rowling, and so on. Some of these formulas are more universally useful, but the only real writing rules are spelling and grammar rules, and even those are negotiable.

  14. Thanks for this useful anarchy, DL. Having never been to any sort of creative writing classes I don’t know or follow any rules. I’m not sure rules makes for original creativity … look at Dylan Thomas – he must have broken every rule in the book.

    Frankly just because a writer is successful does not make his ‘rules’ an imperative … many of the old classical writers would simply not get published today. Personally I cannot stand the way Hemingway wrote and I would rather boil my own head than emulate him.

    One point I think writers forget is that they write for readers not necessarily for other writers, who as we all know analyse and compare to the ’nth’ degree.

    Oh, and you are far from boring. x

  15. You can’t always show things, you have to tell some. good point

  16. I love your comments. As for writing the “boring” bits, I think of two popular reads that point out both ends of the stick: the travels in the wildernesses in The Lord of the Rings, and the Quiddich matches in the Harry Potter series. When Jo’s books got so long, I admired the latitude the publisher was giving her. I felt that her first book complied to a rigid page count from the publisher.

    The travels in the wildernesses, if you let them, give a real sense of the onerousness of the quest. The Quiddich demonstrated the importance of play in growth and development, physically and psychologically.

  17. I like breaking writing rules. Like writing fragments and starting sentences with conjunctions.

  18. Weren’t rules made for being broken? at least some of the time? 🙂

  19. I say that there are no rules in creative writing. If it looks good and gets the point across, then do it. Although, as an English major, who has grammar instilled in the brain, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around my own statement… especially when I blog. Is it creative writing so I can stray from these “rules,” or should I “show” my credibility by following the rules? This is true for me especially in grammar. I’m currently debating whether I want to break the grammar rule of the split infinitive. I personally think “to boldly go” sounds better and makes more sense than “boldly to go.” On top of which, I disagree with the grammarians, but that’s a whole new topic 🙂

  20. sjfboyer permalink

    Reblogged this on sjfboyer.

  21. Writing rules are for n00bs. Once they know what they’re doing, most writers do what they want. Look at King. He breaks his own rules all the time.

  22. defensordelaverdad permalink

    Reblogged this on Fabián.

  23. This is so true! Great post!

  24. Rules are good, but remember, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” RW Emerson. Some writers are successful because they don’t seem to follow any of the rules, but people like their voices.

  25. This is refreshing.

  26. Very nice read. I especially agree with your opinion on rule 3. Variating your mechanics is refreshing! It makes the piece feel like less of a robotic list of events and adds character. When used in moderation. If you’re actively trying to variate “said’s”, then you should probably just use “said”. But if a nice alternative pops into my head, and it flows well, then damn right, I’ll use it. Also, that’s another rule that I get annoyed when people are sticklers about: starting a sentence with a conjunction. Sure, it’s not proper grammar; sometimes, it just sounds good, though, and avoiding it can jumble up your sentences and make them confusing to read.

    Moderation is definitely key, though. I wouldn’t dare break one of these rules more than once per page. I only break them when I genuinely think it makes my writing better to do so. However, most of the time I can make it better by avoiding them.

  27. I definitely break all of these rules once in a while. It wouldn’t be very creative of us if all writers religiously followed every single rule made by other authors. As long as I can understand and enjoy while I read, I don’t care if adverbs or a passive voice are being used.

  28. when suggestions become codified as rules, it’s time to break them.

  29. The “said” rule…amen to your opinion.

  30. My 10th grade English teacher told me, “Learn the rules first; then you’ll really know how to break them.” 🙂

    • Ha! My 11th(?) grade English teacher told me that I had to learn the rules and that I couldn’t break them until I was already published. This was at least 25 years before blogs existed, so I don’t know if having a blog counts as being published.

      • That’s funny! I had several pieces in our HS literary magazine, so I was covered. Technically not sure it counted as published, though, since it was made on a copier… 🙂

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