Are there Writing Rules?

Wow, is that a loaded question. I might as well ask if you believe in Big Foot. I mean seriously…some people will insist there is no such thing while others will swear they’ve seen proof with their own eyes. <<And I’m not talking about the Big Foot>>

rule

So what kind of rules are these anyway? Well for example rules about keeping a consistent Point of View, avoiding clichés, using active verbs and of course the often touted show-don’t-tell mantra. Are these really things we need to follow to be good writers?

In my opinion…yes…sort of…I guess. <<awkward silence…crickets chirping>>

Ok, good talk, then. Glad we got that all cleared up. Ugghhh. So it’s not really a simple answer. As a new writer I really struggled with this, because there is a lot of advice out there that says you have to do “A” and “B” and “C” and then you have a good book. On the other hand, there’s just as much advice that says throw all that out the window because there are no rules.

Confused yet?

Let’s step back a little first. Before we start following rules, it’s probably a good idea to know why they exist in the first place. For example, when driving, we all know to stop on red. That’s a good rule, and it’s easy to see why. <<for those of you that just wrinkled your nose and asked why it’s a good rule…you might want to rethink that driving thing.>>

But with writing rules it’s not so easy to see if they are good. I mean if I screw up my POV, it’s not like an eighteen wheeler is going to come barreling through the lane and T-bone me. So we feel justified to shrug and blow right through that literary red light.

Also, I think there is a misperception that some soulless corporate entity <<you said publishing, not me>> is dishing out these rules so we all conform to their “image” for good writing. Did someone sit down and decide I shouldn’t be allowed to randomly jump around with my POV because they just don’t like that style of writing? Or that I should avoid passive voice because that’s just the way it’s always been and by god that’s the way it’s always going to be. Are we just following rules because someone said they were rules?

I don’t believe that. My feeling is writing rules are out there to help us create a better experience for the reader. We want to invite the reader into our story and then keep them there. Don’t let them leave…or even worse, push them out. That little POV rule is there to remind me that unexpectedly jumping around with my POV can be disorienting to the reader and that might jar them right out of my story. The passive voice rule helps make my writing feel more active so the reader doesn’t get bored. It’s the same idea with show-don’t-tell. <<I’m not going to explain writing rules in this post, but I’ll try to get to some of them in later entries>>

Think of it sort of like baking a cake. There are actual rules to follow when baking a cake. <<oh dear lord did I find that out the hard way>> Yes, you can vary the measurements, the frosting and even the ingredients. There’s a lot of room for flexibility, but there are some things that probably just aren’t going to work out so well if you decide to totally color outside of the lines. I love vinegar in most things, but I wouldn’t dump a bottle into my cake batter. You would take one bite and make that face. <<yeah exactly, THAT face>>

The writing rules are a lot like that. For the most part, they are just trying to remind us not to put vinegar in our cake. Nothing says we can’t make a strawberry, or chocolate or fruit cake or whatever we want, but there are just some things that humans don’t care for in their cake.

So use writing rules to your advantage. If you can see the rule is designed to improve the reader’s experience, then try to use it in your writing. I mean who doesn’t want to write better? On the other hand, if you can’t figure out how a “rule” improves the reading experience, then feel free to run that red light…just check both ways for speeding eighteen wheelers.

Hope some of that made sense. My guess is this post will mostly attract Big Foot theorists, but hey that’s cool. They can’t be any crazier than us writers.

All the best,
JD

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