In Writing, There Are Rules, And Then There Are “Rules”

Writing has rules. And writing has “rules.”

By which I mean, writing is beholden to two things:

Laws and guidelines.

Laws are mostly immutable. A period goes at the end of a sentence. Commas work a certain way. Words mean things. Grammar, punctuation, parts of speech, etc.

These laws grow more complex, of course. Byzantine, even. And the more complex they become, the more mutable they get — technically, you don’t put a preposition at the end of a sentence, but really? You can. And most do. You’re not supposed to use sentence fragments, either. But you can use sentence fragments to excellent effect: the short, sharp shock of information delivered. It can set a staccato rhythm. Just as deft use of a run-on sentence — also a technical no-no — can draw out rhythm and give your prose a purposefully meandering, stream-of-consciousness feel.

Guidelines are a different animal. They feel like laws and are often reported as such because it’s much easier and more interesting to yell YOU SHOULD NEVER USE ADVERBS instead of the more even-handed hey, maybe you should think very hard whether that adverb is necessary here because it might not be, okay? Never mind the fact that in the phrase “never use adverbs,” the word ‘never’ is actually a goddamn adverb, and so are lots of words you will use frequently like ‘now,’ ‘here,’ ‘there,’ ‘always,’ ‘yesterday,’ ‘everywhere,’ or even, ahem, ‘frequently.’ Writing advice is often about guidelines and not about laws, though, so many of the givers of advice (or shouters of advice) appear do so as if they are banging a gavel against the stone binding of a bonafide holy book. This is doubly more complicated when they begin to deliver storytelling advice, which is waltzing on ground that is as unstable as a field made of wadded-up jizz-tissues.

(Don’t even get me started on publishing advice. Yoinks.)

And I say all this as a person who quite clearly delivers a goodly bit of writing, storytelling and publishing advice weekly. I say this to remind you, in part, that what I say here is really just a suggestion — advice on par with how to how to brew coffee or how to perform a given sex-move. You do what you like. Different squeaks for different freaks.

Or: whatever makes your grapefruit squirt, you know?

Because every writer is a different animal. A mythic beastie whose mold was broken.

But herein lies the value of writing advice: these are things worth considering. Seeing how other writers do things matters. Just as the very nature of writing is not immutable, neither is your process, and neither is your grip on language, character, plot, story. Writing advice gets you to engage in the thoughtwork necessary to say, is my way better, worse, different, or what? It demands you ask, is there a way to improve what I’m doing, and is this way the way forward, or is it a step backward? It behooves you to pick up a tool and check its heft, its grip and its function before dismissing it entirely.

Learn the laws. Observe — and challenge — the guidelines.

Some writers violate the laws and guidelines because they never beheld them in the first place, in which case they’re not some bold explorer or given over to artistic experimentation. They’re just an orangutan with a paintbrush. (Sorry to any orangutans reading this blog.) If you use a chainsaw to perform dentistry, I’m impressed, but I’ll be a whole lot less impressed if after the act you say, “Wait, what’s a chainsaw?” Accidental genius isn’t easily duplicated.

I know that I’ve broken rules in my writing. I know that I’ve broken rules in this very post.

I know why I did it, too.

I have said before and I will say again here:

We learn the rules so that we may know when to break them.

We break the rules so that we know why we need them in the first place.

Learn your craft. Then make it your own.

 

53 comments

  • I agree. I’ve found one of the greatest obstacles to my writing is getting bogged down in grammatical nuance. Incorrect usage will irritate some people, but they’re often the sticklers who are almost impossible to satisfy. Some are too rigid in their view of the English language. We all need to face the fact that it’s constantly in flux, making hard and fast rules tough to apply.

  • I think the most annoying thing about writing guidelines is how much new writers feel restricted by them, too afraid of “messing up” to go beyond the supposed rule. Sure, there’s good reason behind it, but it’s really sad when I see a beginning author go back and constantly re-evaluate his work “because I used an adverb there!” or he read something on someone’s blog that you should never do -THIS- and “I really wanted to do -THIS- for this scene!” More than likely, if he looked around a little, he’d see someone else’s blog saying the exact opposite.

    As long as you know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and whether or not it’s working, write however you damn well please. That’s more important than any guideline. Or rule, for that matter

    Great post. Always pleasing to see someone spreading logic.

  • Great post. I just sent edits in on my novella with a number of comments on why I didn’t do what the suggestions asked because of my style of writing. As you say, some rules are immutable, but others… Learn the “rules” and then learn how to break ‘em with style.

  • Wait, wait, wait. You’re forgetting the most important part of writing “laws” and writing “guidelines”! CONTEXT, GODDAMN IT!. In some types of writing (I hesitate to say “genre” because, hey, genre could mean horror or romance or horror romance, or it could mean fiction or business letters), the rules are pretty damn clear and and folks are expected to follow the rules (like business proposals, etc.). And in some genres the guidelines ARE rule (like the boring-ass papers you write for the crusty old history prof who wrote the boring ass book you have to write about to remind him what he wrote because even he was bored when he wrote the book).

    Also, beginners need rules. Amatuers need rules. And most people who try to put pen to paper are amatuers (this is why I get annoyed with people who think they can write without practicing; I’m sure I can do dentistry with a chainsaw, but the patient isn’t going to survive because I don’t know fuck-all about dentistry). It’s not until you get comfortable that you can break away. And you have to write a whole hell of a lot to get comfortable with breaking rules.

    And let’s not forget that English teachers (including yours truly) have a bad habit of presenting the guidelines as rules and the rules as guidelines and so many, many creative people walk away thinking they can’t write worth shit when in truth what they need is a mentor to sit with them and go line by line through a piece of writing, which of course is impossible given how we fund education in this country. So, yeah, let’s bring back the apprenticeship model and teach writing as doing instead of writing as vivisection.

    Context is the difference between a rule and a guideline. If you write for the AP, you better damn well follow the style guide, which is considered “rules”. If you’re writing a steampunk horror romance set on Mars, then knock yourself breaking conventions to find a style that works.

    And let’s not forget that a lot of great writing consistently breaks the rules and succeeeds because the writers know how to tell a great fucking story first.

  • I honestly believe that frequently using adverbs is always a fabulously awesome idea. As a matter of fact I spitefully make it my top priority in writing–to annoy, quite humorously, those frauds who bitterly espouse “rules”. I hope God happily damns them.

  • When I wrote my latest novel, I was fairly assiduous about culling unnecessary adverbs, to keep it clean and lean.

    Lo and behold, after I sold it, my editor then goes and adds a bunch of adverbs for consideration when it came to draft revision. Obviously, she thought I’d stripped it down too much.

    The moral is: do what feels right to you. If it’s a problem, it’ll get fixed later.

  • Yesss…while I will admit to being the Grammar Fuhrer amongst my writing group, there are times when “correct” grammar destroys the flow of a dialogue.

    Then again, in the words of a truly awesome character, there are some things with which up shall not be put.

    There was a lady of my acquaintance who refused to capitalize the proper name one of her characters had given his car (think Christine) by saying “he doesn’t capitalize it when he writes it”. I wanted to beat her senseless with her precious Starbucks mug.

    • Whoa, if I let my characters rule me like that I’d be bound and gagged in a dark basement, waiting to be tortured for information because I obviously know too much. Well…hmm…now that I’ve mentioned it, it *is* kind of dark in here. And what’s this thing in my mouth?

  • I had a creative writing teacher who berated me in front of the whole class for my use of fragments. Bitch. You can pick up almost any published novel and there they are. Fragments. I think I could have taught her a thing or two. Plus I picked up one of her books and I was not impressed. She sucked.

  • This is so spot on! I really love that you kept it real in this blog as you always do. As a writer for me it’s hard when it comes to editing, comma’s and that’s about it. But, I try to perfect my craft to the best of my ability. Congrats on all of your success and I look forward to the next blog!

  • Wonderful post! I most especially extremely enjoyed the bit about adverbs. Admittedly, I am an adverb rich writer. I go on the theory that one should make the adverbs zing, not lie there like broken eggs, oozing into the pavement. Keep the “no count” adverbs at bay and use the ones that make the writing shine. I’m going to share this with my writing buddies. Thank you

  • “Learn your craft. Then make it your own.” <3

    I'd say figuring out how to make best use of other people's rules/tools/feedback is one of the more important skills for creators to have. I've completely derailed by over-correcting from feedback, and I've definitely slammed into the same walls over and over again by resisting certain rules — I'm looking at you outlining!

    That said, I'm kind of waiting for the day when of the anarcho-norules-orangutan-types goes beyond "your grammar can't confine me" and takes it up to "I have learned to write books in the key of chartreuse jellyfish." Because if you're going to skip rules, skip them all the way? ;)

  • Paring adverbs tightens your writing. If that’s what you’re after, try this: when tempted to type an adverb, ask yourself (and your thesaurus) if there isn’t a better, more specific verb you could use (and forgo the adverb).

  • This topic is something I’ve ranted about before. This is probably something most writers rant about at some point. You have, of course, done so eloquently, and it’s less of a rant than an informative, helpful, interesting article.
    Glad to see your stance on adverbs. That’s one that bugs me. I don’t use them often, and when I do, I use them purposefully. But I have critiquers who call me out on every one to say I should never use them because if I have to, it means I’ve structured my sentence incorrectly. I stylistically choose to use them occasionally, and I’m not okay with the idea that there is an entire type of word I am never ever allowed to use as a writer.
    As far as grammar and punctuation go, I believe that a solid understanding of the rules is necessary, though you don’t have to be an expert or always follow every rule. Though it bugs the hell out of me when people break rules out of laziness and willing ignorance.
    I had a writing group where one of the attendees could not format dialogue to save her life. It was so bad, it was distracting and almost unreadable. When this was brought up, she shrugged and said, “Eh, that’s what editors are for.” I quit that group soon after.
    On the flip side, the more marketing copy I write for work, the more I’m understanding that purposefully breaking rules (like run-on sentences or sentence fragments) can make sentences more compelling and emotional. I’m a copy-editor-slash-copy-writer, and my editor and writer halves are often at war in my day job. I’m beginning to get a better sense of when my writer half should win out.
    Long story short, I agree with you wholeheartedly, and your post is well-written and well-stated, as usual.

  • March 19, 2014 at 4:34 PM // Reply

    I’ve really been having some fun with sentence fragments. The old paragraph followed by a fragment, then followed by another fragment. Been doing that a lot with my current disaster-piece.

  • Thank you for this post. Whenever I’ve told people that “Never use adverbs!” is a silly “rule” because it even contains an adverb, they just don’t get it. But you’re Chuck Wendig; people listen to you. Maybe they’ll get it now.

  • All right, I’ll be the one to stick up for the people who do and say these things.

    This exists because there is either a lack of clarity or an abundance of fear.

    I am a part of the former. I want my entertainment to be clear, and I would like for it to be concise (this is why I frequently skip novels because they aren’t clear enough at times). There are far too many things in this universe competing for my attention. I shouldn’t have to spend three hours debating with myself about whether or not a paragraph actually meant something because someone didn’t write clearly enough…or had a direction…or doesn’t even know what structure means.

    The second part is fear. Fear of drawing outside the lines, fear of not expressing yourself, fear of being put in a closet because you wrote a dirty poem once when you were in the sixth grade. Yes, these people can loosen up, but when was the last time you were afraid? What did you do when someone told you all of your fears were invalid because they didn’t make sense to them?

    Yeah, you wanted to punch them in the face too.

    So, while the advice is somewhat sound, the rallying behind it is less so. Life is a single player campaign and all of us are NPCs in someone else’s reality. If they want to dwell in their fear, then so be it. If they want clarity, then they don’t have to read, write, or anything else if they so choose.

    Advice is advice, it is up to the PC to do with it what they will (including this reply right here).

      • From what I remember, it’s a relatively new app that allows a reader to read through a chapter of a comic or story, and vote on the main character’s next choice, and the option with the most votes is written/drawn. It seems like an interesting way to write a story, and really interactive for the reader.

        Although it doesn’t have many people behind it, from what I can tell, maybe about ten to fifteen people writing/drawing through this, if I remember right.

  • Yaaaaay! Thank you once again, Chuck, for being our warrior against the Perfect Writing Police!

    Sure, correct grammar and sentence structure has its place. Too many adverbs is like eating too many sweets too quickly. But sometimes writers break these rules because they know WHY they’re breaking them. They’re well aware of the effect it creates in the prose, and that’s exactly the effect they’re trying to create – to change the mood, rhythm or social context within the story. As you so rightly say, they’re tools in the toolbox as much as any of the Writing-Professor-designated ones, and if they get the job done they’re the right ones to use.

    Good writers aren’t defined by having the wizziest versions of the ‘right’ tools. They’re defined by how well they know how to use the tools they’ve collected. And that’s an apprenticeship that takes lots and lots of practical application. Doing. Cocking up. And then doing again. Rinse and Repeat.

  • I never liked Picasso much until I saw his early work, when he was still obeying some rules before rewriting them all for us and saw he could draw like, well, like Picasso.
    Similarly, when I first started writing poetry that I wanted others to read, I wrote a bunch of sonnets and rhyming iambic pentameter stuff to show to my old English teacher just to prove to myself that I could stick to the old rules and he asked me why I was so restrictive, and said it was ok to put in the odd 11 syllable line to lighten it up, even in a sonnet.
    In early drafts of my first novel I had long sentences, then cut them to shorter only to be told by my editor that I had too many short sentences beginning with pronouns and it was better to join up a few… But as someone said before, if the story is good enough, everything can be cleaned up to the editor’s/publisher’s own view of the laws and guidelines.

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