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Always do X. Never do Y. Nearly all writing teachers have a version of these kinds of tips – the “Rules of Good Writing,” the “10 Commandments on Writing Like Shakespeare,” the “How Hemingway Did It” adages.
Following rules keeps student writers on track because they haven’t got it all figured out yet. For them, having a list of clear, actionable tips is great, because it helps them feel like they’re clearly on the path to good writing.
But most writers reach a point where following the rules feels like being trapped in a cage. What then?
Break the rules. Smash them into smithereens. Obliterate each last axiom, tip, and must-do…so long as the end product is effective writing!
Here are eight commonly repeated rules of writing that ultimately might do as much harm as good if you religiously adhere to them.
1. Write like no one’s going to read it. There’s a huge difference between writing for yourself (aka journaling) and writing for an external human audience. If your goal is to be published, there’s no getting away from caring about – at least a little – what other people want from your writing. So at some point in your process, you need to attend to the needs of those readers.
2. Write what you know. About this little nugget, award-winning writer Todd James Pierce says, “Unless you have a vastly more exciting life than I do, this might not lend itself to compelling subject material.” The solution? Research, research, research. Read. Interview experts. Go out and experience things firsthand. Pierce promises that “the goal of ‘knowing it well’ trumps ‘write what you know’ every single time.”
3. You must be in a writer’s group. The problem with this phrase is that it’s almost always missing the most crucial word: You must be in a GOOD writer’s group. Substitute the word “effective,” “quality,” “helpful,” or “awesome,” if you prefer.
Being in a bad writer’s group is disempowering, frustrating, and counter-productive. Being in a good one provides you a welcoming community, professional feedback, and craft insight.
4. Trust your editor. Whether it’s debating a particular use of the semicolon or coming up with a marketing plan for your historical romance novel, blindly following everything your editor says doesn’t make sense. It’s YOUR name on that work, not theirs. You have to own every bit of it. Sure, they often have suggestions that are informed by years of experience. But the blanket statement of “trust your editor?” Doing that might lead editors to think you must not care much about your work because you’re not willing to fight for any part of it.
Pierce adds, “You’re probably more of an expert on what you’re writing about than any marketing person or editor. Recognize that your input is probably equally valuable.”
5. Don’t read other authors while you’re writing, or you’ll end up sounding just like them. IF this were true, everyone would be reading Stephen King while writing their horror novels and we’d have oodles of people making 8 gazillion dollars because they sound a lot like Stephen King. This also seems suspiciously like the claim some young writer makes each semester to me that they don’t want to read the writing of anyone else because it might damage their own creativity and squelch their voice. Hard to believe, I realize, but I get myopic Kurt Vonnegut wannabes in my classes all the time. What they don’t yet understand is that reading helps them find their own voice.
Reading is fuel for the imagination. Reading is inspiring. Reading is relaxing. Reading is a way to keep the “art” part of your brain active between writing sessions. Plus, Stephen King isn’t alone in recommending that half of one’s writing time be spent reading.
If you’re truly worried about sounding too much like a specific author, read outside of your genre when you’re writing. Working on a travel essay about Dubai? Read the poetry of Robert Pinsky. Writing a “killer robots from planet Xerxes” novel? Read David Sedaris’ essays or another work of nonfiction.
6. You should write every day. That’s a terrific idea…in theory. I should also swim 20 laps every day, mow my lawn twice a month, and grade student papers the moment they’re turned in. But like you, I’m busy and don’t do all the things I ought to do when I “should” do them. I accept that.
The gist of this advice is sound – write often enough that you don’t lose your rhythm or forget what you’re up to. That might mean writing every other day. Or only on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. If you’re thinking about your work and reading a lot during that in-between time, it can help make those less-than-every-day writing sessions as productive as an every-day “Must-Do!” writing routine (which can start to feel like drudgery pretty darn fast).
7. Never use sentence fragments. No one uses perfect grammar when they speak, and your characters shouldn’t either – especially when it’s in dialogue. Heck, I’ve used more than one non-sentence in this article alone, and the Grammar Police haven’t come after me yet. If it sounds right to your ears and it works for readers, leave it alone. Even if it’s a fragment.
8. You should use the active voice over the passive voice. I confess – this one’s fairly sound most of the time. Though there will be moments where I want to be vague about who is responsible, such as “Errors were indeed made.”
Or consider the following. Which is funnier?
Passive: That award-winning sonnet was written by my basset hound, J.K. Growling.
Active: My basset hound, J.K. Growling, wrote that award-winning sonnet.
Okay, maybe both give me the giggles, which goes to show that rules don’t always work as hard-and-fast, cut-and-dry strategies to follow.
It’s clear that advice of any type – whether it’s for writing great novels, making a terrific spinach soufflé, or pitching a new widget to the sales team – is anything but one-size-fits-all. What people SHOULD preface their rule-dispensing with is something like this: “Hey, this is the way it worked for me. Maybe it’ll work for you too? And if not, no worries. We’re still pals.”
I now grant you literary license to ignore any writing advice that you sense will prove unhelpful. (And that includes anything from this article, too.)
Ryan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20 books, and he runs the creative writing program at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. Web: ryangvancleave.com.