Fact: There are more writing rules out there than there are writers.
Fact: Not all rules work for all people.
This is why I think some of the most “tried and true” writing rules need to be rethought or reframed from the way they are traditionally presented. Now, if the traditional interpretations work for you, go for it. These are just a few that I’ve encountered that don’t necessary work for me unless they are thought of a little differently.
1. Write What You Know – This is probably the first one every writer hears about. When taken literally, it can mean only write about what you’ve experienced. Obviously, I’ve never been to Arthurian Britain, so I don’t take this one too literally. Real life is boring; that’s one the reasons we read. I guess you could frame any mundane job into an exciting plot (i.e. marketing becomes a propaganda campaign for a totalitarian society or if you are a bank teller you could have someone in that role involved in a multi-million dollar heist), but I don’t think you should limit yourself to your day-to-day world. (Fantasy and sci-fi writers certainly don’t.)
However, if you want to write something outside of your realm of expertise, make sure you do your research. For example, if you were going to write about someone who is in jail and you haven’t been, volunteer for a prison literacy program, talk to current or former inmates if you can, and/or interview or shadow a corrections officer. The more you know, the more convincing your writing will be, and I think that was the point behind this rule to begin with.
2. Write Every Day – Many authors are known for backing this one. Me? Not so much. Two years of NaNoWriMo have proven to me that I can do it, but that it’s not good for my long-term mental or physical health. I don’t think you have to or even should work on your Work In Progress (WIP) every single day. Part of our job as writers is to think and you can’t do that if you’re burned out. Sometimes the plot just needs to marinade in your brain for a while. Plus, not everyone’s lives are structured in such a way as to make writing every day possible or desirable.
I think the idea behind this rule is that writing is a muscle that needs to be regularly exercised, and I agree with that. But it doesn’t mean you have to be a slave to your story. Write blog posts, journal, do some creative writing or flash fiction or cheat on your WIP with another project. As long as you get your creative juices going on a regular basis and dedicate yourself to finishing your WIP as your life allows, you’ll be fine.
3. Remove All Adverbs from Your Writing – This is a hotly debated rule. I think it works to an extent because too many adverbs are very, very annoying to the reader. As a writer, you should try to get the way something is said across through voice, physical action or some other means without always relying on adverbs. But as a reader, sometimes I find them helpful, especially when the writer is trying to convey sarcasm or humor, which don’t always come across clearly on the page. I think adverbs are to writing as spices are to cooking; used sparingly and skillfully, they can add just the right flavor to your story.
4. Avoid Prologues – This is one I’ve seen a lot lately and one I see ignored in many of the books on my shelf. Some agents say they will not even look at a book with a prologue. But I think that mindset (and the rule) comes from the fact that a lot of writers don’t understand what a prologue is for and therefore don’t write them well. A prologue may provide backstory, but it’s not just a way of cramming in more details before chapter 1. It’s not just a dumping ground for the flashback you didn’t know what to do with or a beloved scene you had to cut from the body of the book. It may perform these functions, but the use has to be intentional and it has to move the story forward in some way.
Used correctly, a prologue frames the story and prepares the reader for what is to come in a way that the action of the story (which begins with chapter 1) cannot. It reveals essential facts that the reader needs that can’t be given in any other way within the story itself. Not all books need prologues. In fact, most probably don’t. But if your story does, don’t be afraid to use one. Just make sure it contributes to the story in some vital way and could not just as easily be your first chapter or deleted completely. (This is a great post on proper use of prologues, in case you’re interested.)
5. You Need an MFA to Be a Professional Writer – I don’t have my MFA and neither do many writers. I’m sure those programs are very helpful, and I’m in no way discrediting them. I’m just saying they aren’t a must. With the advent of the Internet, learning about the craft of writing is easier than ever. You can read blogs by experts, take webinars, and talk with authors and experts in forums. Then there are the thousands of books written on the subject. But even those aren’t necessary. In my mind, the only two things you really have to do to become a good writer are read a lot (you can learn more from very poorly and very expertly written books than in any class) and write, write, write. You really do improve with practice.
And in case you’re in the mood for a little humor, here’s a funny post with advice from famous writers where they clearly aren’t taking the rules all that seriously.
Do you agree or disagree? What rules do you break? Which do you reinterpret? Which do you feel need to be followed to the letter?
Good points all. The “Write what you know” rule is probably one of the most often repeated, least understood writing ‘rule’ out there.
On the subject of MFAs, I read a blog post a successful YA author about MFA programs.
From the post:
“And when I look around at all of my writer friends, I’m the ONLY one (that I can think of) with an MFA. They all had various kinds of experiences. John Green was a hospital chaplain. Ally Carter was an agricultural economist. David Leviathan still is an editor/publisher. Justine Larbalestier has a PhD in semiotics. Scott Westerfeld designed software. Robin Wasserman did her graduate work in scientific history. Cassie Clare worked for the National Enquirer. Meg Cabot ran a dormitory. The list goes on and on.”
Holy proofreading fail! Sorry for my inconsistent pluralization and missing words above; I really do know how to put a sentence together. Usually.
How bad is it that i didn’t notice until you pointed it out? My brain read your reply correctly. I know you can form a sentence. I’ve sat next to you while you’ve written many!
Glad you liked the post, Robert! I love the quote you included from Maureen Johnson. She’s definitely a thought leader when it comes to writing. And she’s correct in what she said. Thanks for commenting!