Terrible lies writers tell each other: there are no rules

“There are no rules!”

I get told this occasionally, often by indignant writers upset at my reaction to their magnum opus. It gets bandied about online a lot, and on the surface it actually seems like good advice. Be free! Be creative! Don’t let the man get you down!

It’s not true, there are rules to writing. The rules can be bent, and they can be broken, but pretending they aren’t there at all is idiotic and will hinder or kill your writing career.

If you don’t want a career and you’re creating for the fun of it, then awesome, there really aren’t any rules. If you’re creating just for you then you can do whatever you like. If you’re creating for other people’s consumption then there are conventions that you can’t afford to ignore.

First up you need to learn how to spell, or get an editor in on your action. If you spell words however you feel like it then you aren’t keeping it real instead you’re displaying the fact that you can’t be bothered to learn how to do it right. If you want to go traditional with your career having all the grammar and punctuation right in your story will show anyone considering your novel that you care enough about their time to get it right. The only way to learn spelling is to write, make mistakes and get them corrected.

After that you need to learn about story structure. You can tell any sort of story you want to, but the underlying structure has to be there or the story won’t work for the majority of readers. Yes there are writers who break the rules of structure and some of them do it very well, but it’s important to know that the writers who do this right know the story structure rules so well that they can break them without breaking the story. You need to learn the rules first. By the far the best place I’ve found for learning story structure is www.storyfix.com. Have a cruise through the blog posts there to see what I mean.

Finally you need to match your presentation to the kind of story you’re writing. For example, having a different font or text colour for each character sounds like a cool idea in a novel, but in reality it’s just confusing.

Virtually all other pieces of writing advice are more guidelines than hard and fast rules, and you can ignore them if you want to. With that said, even with the guidelines it’s important to know the rules before you break them, that way you’ll look cool and edgy instead of like the person who didn’t do the research.

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3 Responses to Terrible lies writers tell each other: there are no rules

  1. i write for the joy of writing but now i am aspiring to turn myself into a professional writer..your blog is really helpful

  2. Such a great post – I completely agree. We occasionally get submissions at our critique group which deviate from grammar, spelling, consistency and sense. When trying to make suggestions to such writers, we get brushed off and told that they don’t like to ‘follow the rules’ but prefer to follow ‘their own artistic instincts’. Personally, I think it’s immediately clear when someone has made a conscious decision to bend the rules for a particular effect, and when they’re just lazy.

  3. javierNo Gravatar says:

    I think the problem is that you often forget that these “rules” are there for a reason, there are consequences in breaking them and you need to be aware of them if you want your point to come across. If your artistic idea is all about confusion, then it’s probably a possibility of breaking structure, sense etc… but you need to be aware that you are doing this for a reason. It’s ok to thump a piano with a hammer if you wanted to express something anger, but it’s going to sound and look awful so if you where looking for a pastoral scenery, better stick to the “rules” of pleasant sounding music.

    Common practice in education is to teach rules as a recipe with no reason behind, this results in either uncreative “inside the box” artists or unsuccessful “do whatever you like” artists (normally these are also lazy…).

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