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Rules? Where We’re Going We Don’t Need Rules

There’s a strong tendency in critique groups, whether online or in person, or in writing guides, or even just in casual conversation between writers, to talk about The Rules of Writing. They’re often talked about as if they are immutable, as if ignoring them will make you fail.

This is false.

One can say there are guidelines. I can say there are things that help me write that might also help you write. (Hopefully, my earlier columns on Setting and Characterization are taken in that vein.) One can suggest, in a critique, that if you are trying to do X, perhaps you could consider Y. All of these are fine. It’s only when these suggestions are taken as law that problems arise.

Writing 101

A Thoughtful Life by Deborah DeWitA lot of simpler rules fall under Writing 101. These are often considered rules for writers who are just starting out, and struggling. They want rules and structure in the hopes of writing better. Rather than going through the rigorous process of determining character arcs, the psychologies of fictional people, proper worldbuilding, pacing, subtext, word choice, thematics, and so on, they want simple answers.

A lot of the advice in this area seems to stem from the ideal of lean, muscular prose. Stephen King complained famously about adverbs (and he’s far from the only one) and thus ‘omit all adverbs’ became a staple of writing advice. Never mind that almost all books use adverbs. (As proof, I just opened the nearest book to me—Sam Sykes’ The Skybound Sea—to a random page, and found “dismissively.” I then did the same to John Le Carre, Mary Shelley, and Scott Lynch.) Adverbs aren’t a problem. Adverbs used poorly are a problem, but the same issue exists with all words.

I’ve read similar advice with dialogue tags, show don’t tell, passive voice, and more. It’s not that it’s bad advice—it’s that it’s too often the only advice given, and each of those can be used well in certain circumstances.


Constraints don’t need to be problems. In fact, a constraint can be inspirational. You are told, “You cannot do this in your story.” Your faster-than-light starship is breaking the laws of physics. Even point of view can be a constraint. You immediately try to find ways to push against that, often resulting in a stronger story.

Even on a prose level, there are constraints. Stephen King drops adverbs. Elmore Leonard only uses ‘said’ in his dialogue tags. The difference is that King and Leonard are choosing what to leave out of their own work, rather than letting people tell them what to do.

Write Like Everyone Else Or Else

Who are we writing for? We might say, “I am writing for a broad audience.” However, if we end up writing like everyone else, what separates us from all of them?

Babel Library by Miháy BodóI could write a story that appeals to a broad base of people, but it would likely be somewhat similar to numerous other books on the market. Alternately, I could write a book that was unique and might have a smaller audience, but a more dedicated one, because they can’t find anything else quite like it.

The simple fact is, different people look for different kinds of books. Even in fantasy, we have people who want romance, or humour, or action, or the thrill of experiencing a new world. And these aren’t static, either: a reader can want a romance and then a comedy, a book with dream-logic followed by a magic system more regulated than physics.

There’s room on the shelves for a well-done traditional story and more experimental work. House of Leaves can sit next to A Study in Scarlet. These options don’t need to crowd out the other; it’s not a zero-sum game.

Pushing The Boundaries

Many of the Big Names, in genre and out, have found new ways of telling tales. When you read a book by Kurt Vonnegut or Douglas Adams, you can tell their style immediately.

Imagination by kelleybean86In fact, the further we push these boundaries, the further we can see that there are no rules whatsoever. Freytag’s Triangle, and its predecessor, Aristotle’s Three-Act Structure, are often considered basic elements of storytelling. Yet much of Poe’s work, including two of his most famous pieces, The Pit and the Pendulum and A Cask of Amontillado, start in the third act. We are often told to make protagonists who are interesting or relatable. Yet Kafka’s Josef K from The Trial isn’t interesting: what’s interesting is the bizarre situation he’s been put into. James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake throws basic coherence out the window, and yet is studied and analyzed and has been for decades.

You need to write your story. No one else will do it for you, so why let them tell you how to do it? The rules are meaningless in the hands of a good writer. The only real rule is to find out what works for you, and write.

Title image by Deborah DeWit.



  1. Avatar J.R. Hall says:

    First I would like to let out a sigh of relief to common sense for once. As a new writer I have been bombarding myself with writing books, instructional videos, and more trying to get up to speed on the whole writing gig and all the “rules” that come along with it.

    Thanks for helping this “newbie” writer realize that I don’t have to follow every writing rule out there but rather pick and choose the ones that fit my style of writing.


  2. Good advice. I’ve always contended that there are only two actual rules of writing: “If it works, do it; if it doesn’t work, don’t do it” and “Never believe a rule that contains the words ‘always’ or ‘never’ (including this one)”.

    • Avatar Dan J. says:

      What does “If it works…” mean? How does a writer, particularly a beginning writer without a great deal of experience, determine whether X works or not? Serious question.

  3. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Here SF author Robert Sawyer muses on Heinlein’s rules of writing. I found the advice helpful when I was first starting out, and would still if I were able to follow any of them consistently. http://www.sfwriter.com/ow05.htm

    • Avatar Ryan Howse says:

      Khaldun: I agree explicitly with Sawyer’s change to rule #3. Revision can be useful, but endless fiddling is not so much. The key, of course, is to find out which is which.

  4. Avatar Dan J. says:

    I think everything you said here is true. I also think it’s absolutely horrible advice.

    If you know enough about writing to know WHEN you can break the rules, you already know that it’s OK to break them. You don’t need an article like this telling you its OK. If you need someone to tell you that it’s OK to break the rules, then you don’t understand the rules well enough to know why they exist and why and when it’s OK to break them.

    The rules of writing are there and they’re repeated because generations of writers have found out that in most cases, it’s the best way to write. Most of the time, for most beginning writers, ignoring the rules WILL make you fail. There are exceptions. There are immensely talented writers who, like Joyce, can write near gibberish and somehow turn it into a work of art. If you’re one of those rare geniuses, then you don’t need advice from me or anyone else. Sit down, fire up the keyboard and blow the world away with your brilliance. If you’re not so supremely blessed, then learn the rules. Don’t just learn them by wrote. Learn the reasons behind the rules. Learn WHY constantly changing dialog tags tends to be distracting and irritating to the reader. Understand what it is about adverbs that King dislikes. And once you know and actually understand the rules, THEN you can say “This is a rule due to ‘x,’ but ‘x’ doesn’t apply here. I’m doing ‘y,’ so I can ignore that rule.”

    • Avatar Ryan Howse says:

      I certainly agree with one point, and it’s one I wished I would have put into this article: knowing the reasons behind the rules is more important than knowing the rules themselves.

      That said, I find too many rules are emphasizing one particular method of writing (invisible prose) and I dislike that. Beginning writers who want to write more poetic or experimental work shouldn’t feel pressured into writing in a style that doesn’t work for them.

      • Avatar Dan J. says:

        I agree that there are a lot of rules and it’s possible to get bogged down into nitpicking your prose trying to satisfy every little bit of advice out there. The point I was trying to make, and I apologize if it came across harshly, was that beginning writers often don’t have the experience and the knowledge to know what works and what doesn’t. I’ve spent a lot of time in writing groups and writing forums and I see a lot of beginning writers putting out poor quality work because they violate the rules in ways that do not work. I have no issue at all with experimental prose, with pushing the boundaries and stretching yourself. But I think there’s a difference in being experimental and in littering your prose with “he exclaimed, he exhaled, he extorted, he groaned, he snarled, he asserted, he chortled, …” Prose should be invisible – except when it shouldn’t. That’s often a difficult line for an experienced writer to get right. I guess my advice would be that if you’re a beginning writer and you want to be experimental, realize that there’s a good chance you won’t get it right, especially the first few hundred times. Get feedback on what works and what doesn’t, and don’t dismiss that feedback as “Well, they’re just a hide-bound traditionalist and don’t get what I’m trying to do.”

  5. Avatar Xen says:

    Thank you for posting this. I see so many ridiculous rules for writing going around that have nothing to do with prose. For example, one rule set said that you should never mix unicorns with vampires because only werewolves should go alongside vampires. That’s just limiting for no reason.

  6. Avatar L.K. Donovan says:

    Great post. I used to waste a ridiculous amount of time worrying about the “rules” of writing. But the more I tried to conform to those rules, the worse my writing became. Then I realized: if I’m not enjoying writing my story, there’s no way anyone will enjoy reading it. Now I let myself write what I want, when I want, and how I want. I’d rather have someone absolutely hate my story than read it and say, “Meh.”

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