Writing Rules(ish)

I don’t even know how many lists of writing rules there are out there. It seems like everyone has one. Some are lists for the writing process, some are in regard to tropes. Humans really seem to like lists; maybe it’s the notion that we can somehow impose order on our world with sequential steps. Writing has never been the straightforward for me.

A lot of people trip up over the very idea of writing rules. What are the rules of writing? Which rules are the right ones? If you don’t know them, do you have no hope of writing well? Oh, but if this famous person said it, it must be true. If writing rules don’t matter, why do so many people talk about them? Art means you can do anything, so aren’t rules just constraining to creativity?

It’s approaching the topic the wrong way, I think. In my opinion, there’s exactly one writing rule that matters, and it’s this:

You can do anything you want, as long as it works.

And even that needs to be qualified, because in a first draft, it doesn’t even have to work. Or maybe playing with that thing does exactly what you meant it to do, and it didn’t work, and you’re okay with that and just going to trunk it, and that’s fine too.

If you intend to publish it, though, it does have to work. And if it doesn’t work, nobody will care how cool your idea was. And just because you do something on purpose does not mean it works.

Writing “rules” are collections of things that authors/editors/readers have found tend to work. They’re safe, tried and tested, which is not at all the same as easy. This is not to say that you can’t break those rules gloriously and with abandon, or that you have to know the “rules” before starting, but at least being aware of them, and breaking them intentionally, will leave you far less likely to stumble around into a stupid mistake that a list of eight bullet points could have warned you about.

It’s a lot like grammar in prose — you can break grammar rules, but if you just don’t know how to use semicolon or how to properly place your modifiers, you’re setting yourself up for trouble. Poor grammar, at least, is pretty easy to fix, if sometimes time consuming; story is harder.

If you look at one of those lists, you’ll be able to think of stories you love that have broken all of them, and that’s part of what made them work. And also stories that broke them and failed horribly, and stories that followed them and worked, or didn’t.

Use whatever works for you. If a rule doesn’t help you write your story, then it’s not a useful rule for you. It probably is for someone else.

Writing rules really are guidelines, but I feel like that term has gained an unfortunate connotation since Pirates of the Caribbean, in that people think that means you can disregard them entirely, and I think that’s a mistake.

More than following them, rules tell you a lot about how people think of stories, and that is always fodder for even more stories.

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