8 Rules of Writing That Are Easy to Break
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.