Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Rules of Writing (Cough, Cough!)

If you hang around writer’s workshops or read books about creative writing, you’re going to encounter “the rules.”

And by encounter I mean smash into, in a race-car-encounters-brick-wall kind of way.

  • Never end a sentence with a preposition.
  • Active voice is always better than passive.
  • Exterminate all adverbs.
  • Write your fiction from a single point of view—no head-hopping!
  • A split infinitive is a moral failure.
  • Never start your story with a prologue.

And these are only a few examples from a list that can span Ohio and half of Pennsylvania.

If you break these rules, you will incur the Wrath of the Rule-Keepers. (Note: you have to shout "Wrath of the Rule-Keepers" into an empty metal coffee can to get a menacing but really cool echo effect.)

The Rule-Keepers love to blurble on about why their writing is superior to yours because you--low-life that you are--broke their rules.

In all honesty, I never met a rule of writing I liked. Any time somebody gives me a rule, I immediately start thinking of exceptions. 

For example, one of the rules is that you’re not supposed to repeat words and phrases. You should bend over backwards to keep from writing anything like this: "Ivan held the priceless gemstone in his weathered hand. By some strange alchemy, the gemstone caught the hot fire of the sun and transformed it into cold fire, the beating rainbow heart of the gemstone."

My exception? Sometimes repetition creates lovely word-music. As in the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the pure in heart. . . . .Blessed are the peacemakers. . . .Blessed are. . . ."

My objection really isn’t to the rules themselves. They are generally good guidelines. Most of the time you should probably avoid passive voice and try not to end a sentence with a preposition, and yadda-yadda.

My problem is in setting these guidelines up as the Law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not. In other words, as rules for everyone to follow in every situation.

For one thing, by this time next week, there will be a different set of rules. Someone will decide that we should replace all nouns with corned beef and cabbage or that you should do all your writing in second person. The grammar gaffs that English teachers rail against today may be standard usage tomorrow. And all their railing (and wailing) will have been in vain. 

When it comes to the rules of writing, take what you need and leave the rest.

And since I'm as qualified as the next hack to make up rules, here are the Stark Raving Mythopath's Rules of Writing.

(Oh yeah, you were supposed to shout that last part into the coffee can too.)

1. Write honestly, from your heart. Don't be afraid to tell the truth. You can decide later if anyone else should read what you've written.

2. Lighten up. If you aren't enjoying writing--at least some of the time--quit immediately. Find something else to do that you do enjoy.

3. Don't be a control freak. Allow yourself to be surprised by the words that appear on the paper.

4.T'is more blessed to connect with your reader than to write with perfect grammar or with perfect anything.

5. If you don't begin, you can't finish. If you don't try, you have already failed. Don't let the Rule-Keepers make you afraid to start.

My great fear isn't that I will break the precious rules but that I will fail to write anything worth reading.

Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are." For me, this whimsical quote begins to capture the mystery, the magic, and the fearful leap of faith that writing is.

In art, there are no rules. Or if there are rules, then unfortunately--or perhaps fortunately--nobody knows what they are.

DISCLAIMER: I just spent a few months editing an anthology and applying various rules to everyone's writing. The result? I have a new appreciation for just how subjective the rules of writing and editing are. In that book there wasn't a single paragraph--maybe not even a single sentence--that two editors couldn't clash swords about. This experience only served to reinforce my belief that "the rules" should serve the artist, not the other way around.


  1. Fortunately, I married a rule-breaker. After 40 years of living with him, (30 years of which I've been writing), I've come to the conclusion that rules in writing are meant to be broken! (well, most of them, anyway!)I agree 100% that the rules should serve the artist. Great post!

  2. Well written...and appreciated. Language is so alive and ever-changing that the rules look out-dated as soon as they appear. Poor rule-makers...JJH

  3. As always loved your post and your take on the "rules." :)