Why We Need Rules In Writing

Why We Need Rules In Writing


This post explores why we need rules in writing.

Why We Need Rules In Writing

Why do we need rules in writing? I get asked this a lot when facilitating Writers Write, so it didn’t throw me when a student asked it recently. Of course, I gave my customary caution — you must know the rules before you start to experiment and break them.

Does that mean once we know the rules of the road, we can break them? Wouldn’t that cause chaos?

This was a provocative question. It got me thinking. Perhaps driving isn’t a fair analogy for writing, but perhaps my stock answer was starting to sound glib.

Let’s face it. Some authors don’t follow the rules of writing. Some even make money from not following the rules. What’s more, they have fans who hang on their every word.

To me, every creative project is an experiment. Almost daily, I feel like I’m learning from scratch. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, then I start over or give up—usually the latter.

To me, that’s the rule: If it works, then do it.

How do we know if it works?

  1. Longevity: If you want to challenge and engage the audience and they tell you that your work has made them uncomfortable, forced them to think deeply on an issue, and they’re still discussing your work at universities hundred years from now—then you’ve succeeded. Just keep in mind, when people read James Joyce’s Ulysses, they need a hundred-page guide to the book.
  2. Quick Sales: If you want to entertain and dazzle the reader and sell lots of books and they tell you they raced through your book through the night and you’re on the Top 10 Bestseller for a hundred weeks—ditto. Just keep in mind that people won’t always appreciate the effort that goes into making your book so effortless.

Both tracks demand a brilliant mind and imagination. You hope people like what you’re doing. What you don’t want is indifference. That’s death for the artist.

What should you do?

I still stand by that well-worn maxim: know the rules before you break them. And know why you’re breaking them, please. Picasso was a traditional portrait and landscape painter before he started to experiment with cubism and other forms.

Suggested reading: The Pros And Cons Of Plotting & Pantsing

Here is my final little caveat

Only a genius gets away with breaking the rules. When most writers don’t want to stick to proper structure in storytelling, it is usually because they’re lazy or possess an ego much bigger than their talent.

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If you enjoyed this post, read:

  1. What is a Red Herring?
  2. Adding Suspense to Stories
  3. Exploring Story Worlds – How to get the most out of your research
  4. The Moment of Truth for a Writer

Top Tip: Find out more about our workbooks and online courses in our shop.

This article has 0 comments

  1. Sarah Campbell

    I agree with your final caveat.

  2. Jori

    What I’ve discovered is that following the rules simply *works*. And in the case of the ones who “break” the rules – they’re still following a formula. That formula may be different for each book, but there are certain things you cannot combine and hope to write a winner.

    Cooking might be a better analogy than driving. Once you understand the way food works and have a basic knowledge of the chemistry of it all, you can play. Toss the cookbook on the counter, flip your frying pan in your hand and whip up a brand new dish. But the amateur who combines tuna with peanut butter is begging for a bellyache and a bad review. Writing is no different.

    Personally, I revel in discovering the rules. I have no degree; I’ve come to writing by way of reading. I learned by reading lots and lots and lots, so when I find things that tell me how to get better, how to construct, how to plot, how to outline… I love it! While I did have a very good instinctual feel for how a story should be put together, now that I understand the process more and *why* I’m doing what I’m doing, I’ve only improved. I’m learning how to bend the rules, and why certain things should stay as they are. It’s delicious. Bring on the rules! The best writers know them all!

  3. Anthony Ehlers

    Thanks Jori. I love the cooking analogy. I will use it when I facilitate.

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