#IWSG: A Rule about Rules

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Really sharp-eyed readers will notice that this is the second installment in two weeks of my offering for Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group. I did a piece last week on creating fully rounding supporting characters in your stories. One reader caught me on the fact that I was out of sync – I guess everyone else was just too polite. That sharp-eyed reader said (tongue in cheek,     InsecureWritersSupportGroupperhaps) that I did it deliberately to see if anyone was paying attention. As much as I’d like to go along with that, truth is, I was just so busy with my writing projects and a few other jobs I’m doing right now I misread my calendar and thought June started last week. I broke the rule. And, that’s my real topic this week – writing rules and whether we should feel bound by them.

There are more rules on writing than I can count – so I’ve basically given up on most of them. I’m instantly suspicious of any writing advice that contains the words ‘always’, ‘never’, and ‘must.’ Even the rules of grammar can and should be broken on occasion.

Now, having dropped that controversial little bomb into the conversation let me explain. I don’t think you should necessarily ignore or be ignorant of the rules. I do believe, though, that you should consider junking them when the essence of the story you’re writing demands it. Take grammar for instance. In dialogue, if every character in your story speaks with absolutely ‘by-the-book- grammar, imagine how boring it will sound – and unreal. Real people butcher the language, and within reason, so should some of your characters. Fragmentary sentences, misuse of verbs, the whole ball of wax. Let your characters speak in keeping with their background, etc., and your story will be better for it. Regarding grammar rules, by the way – remember that ditty ‘it’s I before e except after c or when followed by g’? What about rein, ceiling, etc.? These words break the rules, and sometimes – so should you.

There’s more. Rules like start the action on the first few pages, for example. Not a bad idea for a lot of stories, but you can write a chilling tale by holding back on violent physical activity and just building up to it in some other stories.

I could go on and on, but the guts of what I’m saying is that you should let your story determine how and what you do. By all means know the rules. But, also know when breaking them is okay.

9 thoughts on “#IWSG: A Rule about Rules

    dvberkom said:
    June 4, 2014 at 7:25 pm

    Agreed! Rules are there as a guideline.


    Yvonne Hertzberger said:
    June 4, 2014 at 8:58 pm

    My mantra is, “Know the rules so you can break them with awareness and intent”. 🙂


    Sheryl Hartwell said:
    June 5, 2014 at 3:19 am

    Ooh, I want to cheer. I really really hate some of the rules espoused by the MFA in writing clone programs. Can you tell I really hate the “no adverbs” rule? Worse, the “no modifiers” rule? For pity’s sake, why do we have so many adverbs and adjectives in the first place? It’s because nobody invented enough strong verbs and nouns. Modifiers give nuance, save a ton of word count, and I can picture “regretfully” or “sadly” just as well as the much longer “show” version. So there, you MFA drones! Ooh, nobody heard that, right? Because I still advise my editing clients to keep no more than two or three modifiers a page if they want to be picked up by a trade publisher. But I never homogenize dialog. Who wants to read a boring voice? Well, that sounds odd. But you know what I mean. I hope.


    chemistken said:
    June 5, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    Yeah, after reading tomns of books on the so-called rules of writing, I’ve come to understand that most of the rules are personal preferences of the people who are expousing them. Learn what works for you and stick with that.


    Alex J. Cavanaugh (@AlexJCavanaugh) said:
    June 6, 2014 at 1:28 am

    Proper grammar is never spoken. (I live in the South – believe me, sometimes it’s barely English.) If you know the rules, then you know when to break them.


    emaginette said:
    June 7, 2014 at 2:48 am

    I agree with what you say. One of my friends from school would use youse , instead of you the wierdest places. It turned out her whole family did. Anyway, great post.:-)

    Anna from Shout with Emaginette


    […] #IWSG: A Rule about Rules […]


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