Writing Rules

Writing Rules


The creation of writing rules for creative writing is one of the most common mistakes made by editors and writers alike. This occurs for three reasons. The first is vainglorious pride – people feel they are so brilliant as to dictate to others. The second is the simple pursuit of pleasure – it feels good to make apparently incisive, declarative statements applying to everyone and everything. The third is the desire to achieve status – making oneself look good, knowledgeable, and valuable as an editor or a writer carries one forward in the larger community, offering rewards both social and monetary.

However, this practice is nonetheless fallacious, and while these so-called rules are not to be thrown out baby and bathwater, they are also not to be seen as rules in any traditional senseA rule, you see, is something which applies necessarily to everything in its purview. A rule like “Don’t throw yourself into this active volcano or you’ll die” is a good example – there is no disputing this fact, and no reasonable circumstance under which breaking that rule can end well for you. “Don’t eat from this tree or I’ll cast you into the bleakly agonizing world outside this magical garden” is another – again, there is no circumstance under which that can end well should the rule be broken. It is not a complex issue in either case; it’s a matter of IF a THEN b simplicity.


Creative writing, however, is necessarily complex. Even the most paint-by-numbers, check-box-driven writing is unique, its way of speaking is unique, what it wants to express is unique; it is, in short, a situation unto itself in which everything present is substantively distinct from any other book in the world. A rule that applies to it, then, cannot be assumed to apply to every book – this is not a maxim for discussion, it is a matter of concrete fact based on (but not encompassed by) the fallacy of composition. Ironical, to be sure, but true nonetheless.


That being said, rules can help us.


One very common rule, comically presented as part of “Hemingway-style writing,” is that you must never use adverbs (adverbs of frequency being, presumably, immune). This is amusing not just for how childishly declarative it is but because Hemingway used “gently” in the second sentence of For Whom the Bell Tolls. It has long been my assertion that self-declared Hemingway-style writers not only have frequently never read Hemingway but, indeed, would very likely not enjoy him if they could be bothered to.


The problem with this rule is apparent – someone who walks quickly is more efficiently phrased than someone who walks in a fast manner. You have the same thing, only shorter and less absurd sounding. Someone who eats grudgingly, talks officiously, laughs girlishly, and drinks politely is distinct in every way from someone who eats, talks, laughs, and drinks. The former is a person who does things in a certain fashion and is thus distinct from other people. The latter is simply someone who does things everyone else does. They could be anyone at all.


However! That rule regarding adverbs has a nugget of truth. If you use an adverb in every single phrase, it’s going to be difficult to pull off. Indeed, some styles of writing may well benefit from a dearth or even near-absence of adverbs. Something focusing on short, concrete statements for description, something tending to describe not an occurrence but its symptoms can take on the necessary hard edge by omitting adverbs by and large, for example. In that case, the use of adverbs in significant numbers would diminish the work; nonetheless, omitting them entirely might yet be a questionable choice.


Thus, with careful consideration, the lesson (such as it is) regarding adverbs can be kept, considered, and used to learn about the possibilities surrounding the craft of creative writing.


This is frequently true of rules, particularly rules that survive long enough to drone on in my ear until I pray for death – they’re often created by popular writers (Chuck Wendig and Stephen King spring to mind) and often represent an idea which holds real value if taken with mountainous heaps of salt. Think about them as you read and write, but be very wary of following them. Instead, take them on their own, apart from their creators and propagators, and draw your own independent conclusions on how they apply to the way you write and the way you hope to write.


The key is simply not to think of them as fact. And more importantly, not to pass them on unaltered as if they were.


Although, now that I think of it, that’s one way to eliminate the competition…

3 thoughts on “Writing Rules

  1. I like the idea of putting the “rules” in a cage and letting my creativity free during the writing process. Later, I can pull them out, along with the scales of artistry (picture “Lady Justice” except she has lots of feathers and a sombrero and holds the scales out in a sort of “vogue” dance pose), while I proofread. Then, if I’m blessed enough to have a sorcerer of words, I can enjoy the benefits of a great editor who will treat it with the perfect elixir and turn it into gold.


    1. I can definitely see your thinking there. There’s a real bliss to the ecstatic, chaotic inspiration that you can follow to get great results and then go back through with a bit more measured approach. At least as long as your Lady has open, shining eyes and a smirking cynicism for legalism, that is 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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