The Danger of “Writing Rules”

by Mike Duran · 26 comments

One multi-published romance writer said this during an interview on a popular writing site. She was asked about “pet peeves” concerning the industry:

With so many writing rules that new authors have to follow, it’s hard for me to read writers who don’t follow the rules. I can’t hardly read one writer who was one of my favorites for years because that person tells instead of shows, head hops, and has lots of author intrusion. I never noticed those things before I became a writer, but now they jump out at me and can ruin the story.

The “writing rules” this author is referring to is not the Strunk and White type of rules, the standard principles of grammar and composition. There’s “other” rules for contemporary novel writing, formulas for publication which some hold to be just as binding as rules of spelling and punctuation.

Some of those rules are:

  • Show Don’t Tell — Use action and dialog rather than exposition
  • POV — Maintain a consistent, realistic narrative point-of-view; don’t “head hop” from one person to the next in the same scene
  • Avoid Passives — Keep tenses active; Dean killed the cat is better than The cat was killed by Dean

Of course, there’s many other rules and literary conventions, most of which have developed over time and are reinforced by academics, experts, or people in the know (i.e. published authors). But those are some of the biggies.

What’s rather fascinating (and illustrated by the above quote) is the inordinate emphasis placed on new authors to learn to follow these writing rules. Like the good legalist, when I officially began writing, I followed these rules to the letter. I toiled to eliminate passives from my m/s and maintain tight POV’s. And I made it my mission to enforce those rules on unsuspecting newbies.

Until something happened — I started reading.

Frank Peretti’s The Oath, had sold over one million copies worldwide, so I knew it must be terrific. Besides, it was the recipient of the 1996 ECPA Gold Medallion Book Award for Best Fiction, and one of Peretti’s most critically acclaimed novels. I dug in, not only to be entertained, but to be wowed by his craftsmanship.

I read about 50 pages of The Oath before shelving it. Why? The “head-hopping” was driving me nuts!

Here I’d spent a solid year learning the rules and diligently applying them… only to find that Peretti did not do POV’s. In the same scene he’d bounce from one character to another, almost in “omniscient” manner (another writing no-no). Being that POV’s are one of the most elementary of “writing rules,” Peretti’s loosey-goosey head-hopping completely turned me off.

But he had sold a million books.

Now I was faced with a dilemma. Either:

  1. Frank Peretti was a bad writer
  2. What I was learning was wrong, or
  3. The writing rules weren’t as important as I was being taught

Now, after three writers conferences, a dozen craft books, a small library of novels read, several critique groups, two agents, and a two-book contract, I’ve reached this conclusion:

  1. Frank Peretti is a good writer
  2. What I was learning was correct — in the beginning
  3. The writing rules aren’t as important as I was being taught

After that season of legalism, Stephen Koch’s book, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, was revelatory. In it, he writes this about POV:

Many teachers of writing will tell you that the way to unify your story and integrate it with its characters is through something called the narrative “point of view.” There are even certain purists who will insist that an “integrated point of view” is the only way a narrative can achieve unity. . .

. . .The academic emphasis on “point of view” in fiction is precisely that — academic. The notion that “the most important thing in fiction is point of view” is a beguiling but vacuous theory that bears only a marginal relation to real practice. And it causes vast amounts of misunderstanding.

. . .Of course, a consistent point of view can indeed be a guide to unity, and of course, you will want your prose to have a coherent texture. But it is a mistake to assume that point of view itself necessarily endows any story with either unity or coherence. Too often, this rather fussy doctrine pointlessly constricts writers’ options and narrows their range. (pp. 88-90, emphasis mine)

After my early indoctrination, I must say it was refreshing to hear the POV rules called, “. . .a beguiling but vacuous theory. . . [a] rather fussy doctrine [that] pointlessly constricts writers’ options and narrows their range.”

And therein lies the danger of writing rules.

If the primary goal of a story is to take us somewhere, then the “writing rules” must be subservient to that end. Much like a map,  aesthetics are secondary to functionality. It is required first of the mapmaker to know which way North is. A colorful, good-looking map that has its directions all wrong is about as valuable as a well-written novel that doesn’t take us anywhere. Perhaps this is what we should first teach aspiring novelists — not about passives, POV, and show v. tell, but about how to take readers somewhere.

By over-emphasizing writing rules we unwittingly create a “checklist mentality” that places style above story and “pointlessly constricts writers’ options and narrows their range.” Of course, new writers need to understand the rules. But if we’re not careful, we will turn the creative process into a formula and make literary Pharisees out of our proteges.

* * *

Question: Do you agree that these “writing rules” can be a danger to aspiring authors? How much do you emphasize the rules when mentoring new writers?

xdpaul July 7, 2010 at 6:51 AM

Having managed a slush pile or two in my life, I know that the writing rules come in handy…for kind editors or agents who need an easy reason to reject something.

I mean that genuinely, because, _typically_ “broken rules” writing also accompanies worse sins: bad writing. But not always.

I’ve always found it a little silly for story_tellers_ to go around _telling_ each other to _show_, don’t tell. I happen to fall naturally on the side of “cinematic” in my own writing, but the dirty secret is that, sometimes, the best stories are _told_, not shown. It is just that when stories are told poorly, our immediate response is “It would have been quicker if you had just shown me…”

The rules are good.

The best writers know them well, and shatter them wisely for effect.

Mike Duran July 7, 2010 at 8:20 AM

“…the writing rules come in handy…for kind editors or agents who need an easy reason to reject something.” Ha! You’re right, Dan — knowing the rules well equips us to “shatter them wisely.” Thanks for your comments!

Nicole July 7, 2010 at 7:42 AM

The rules explain basic tenets. They must be learned so they can be avoided at will. If every writer obeyed the rules, we’d have even more formulaic novels than we already have in CBA–especially in the romance genre. As I absorbed the rules, I observed those writers who ignored them and taught myself to completely let them go when they held no merit. I’m a rule-breaker and unashamed. They’ve become more trendy than valid as far as creativity is concerned.

J.H. July 7, 2010 at 8:11 AM

Online critique groups are notorious for perpetuating a mythology of writing rules and literary inbreeding. New writers should pay more attention to what’s being published and less attention to the echo chamber of their peers.

Mike Duran July 7, 2010 at 8:16 AM

Well, J.H., I think you’re probably right about online critique groups “perpetuating a mythology of writing rules.” It’s no surprise. When we all read the same how-to books, attend the same conferences, and read the same blogs, it’s easy to pass on the same advice and defend it as though it was Gospel.

Victor Finch July 7, 2010 at 8:17 AM

Maybe a book that followed all the rules would be magnitudes better than one that breaks a few here and there. All I have to say when I read these multitudes “rules” being thrown around is, go ahead and break ’em, but only if you know why they’re there. Don’t break them just to be “breakin’ all the rules, man!”.

Break them because, although you understand what they’re for, sometimes they’re just in the damned way.

Sharon A Lavy July 7, 2010 at 8:19 AM

To learn to use the rules in my own writing, and not lose the ability to enjoy the stories written by the breakers of those same rules, that is a challenge.

I do agree that we need to learn them. So if we break them we are doing it on purpose to make a better story.

BJ Muntain July 7, 2010 at 8:23 AM

I’ve always found that the rules which writers come up with are simply ‘how to learn to write quickly and painlessly’ — that is, if they do everything correctly, they will be a good writer. These include the above rules and the silly rules, like ‘never use a semi-colon’ and ‘never use an -ly adverb’.

What really teaches a writer to write is to put a lot of effort into it, and to keep writing. The rules can help a writer figure out why something may not be working or why a reader is confused, but I avoid saying ‘always’ and ‘never’.

It’s better to tell a writer: “If you kept this chapter to one point of view, I’d be able to figure out who was saying what.” Or, “Could you find a different word besides this adverb?” Or, “This scene would be more suspenseful if you showed us how he was feeling instead of telling us.” I might simply point out that a writer shifted POV here, or was using passive language. It’s up to the writer to decide what to do about anything I tell them — even ignore me, if they feel that’s best for the story.

One thing I *never* tell a writer to do: “Change your work to fit my view/style/opinion.” It’s up to the writer to make the changes, and to develop their own style.

And that’s really what ‘rules’ and ‘opinions’ and the constant writing writing writing is all about: It’s about developing style. It’s about learning the conventions, and deciding for yourself what to use and what not to use — and the best way to use it or not.

TrudyJ65 July 7, 2010 at 8:24 AM

But, wait a minute, omniscient point of view is a totally acceptable point of view for a writer to use. It may not be as popular as it once was — there was a time when most novels were written in omniscient p.o.v., whereas I’d say most now are written either in first person or limited third, or with alternating points of view in different chapters or sections. But the fact that the omniscient p.o.v. is out of style doesn’t make it “wrong.” (The same is true, of course, for authorial intrusion — once very popular, particularly in 19th century novels, popular again in postmodern literary fiction, but currently a no-no in most mainstream commercial fiction).

There’s a difference between questions of style, which these are, and actual writing rules. There are probably fewer “rules” than we like to think. When someone says “don’t head-hop,” it’s possible that person simply doesn’t like or approve of omniscient p.o.v., or doesn’t even recognize that it’s a valid p.o.v. Or, they might be saying, if you’re writing in a limited third-person point of view, be consistent, and don’t sudden insert a single scene from a different character’s p.o.v. THAT, I think, is a writing rule worth following — know what p.o.v. you’re using and be consistent in its use.

By the way, I don’t think Frank Peretti is a particularly good writer, but it’s certainly not because he uses an omniscient p.o.v. He has every right to do so, as does any other writer, although if it’s currently not popular with agents and editors it might lessen one’s chances of having a book accepted.

BJ Muntain July 7, 2010 at 8:34 AM

Right. Forgot to mention that. There is nothing wrong with omniscient point of view. It comes down to: what sort of experience are you wanting to give the reader? Because different points of view give slightly different experiences. I agree that the important thing is consistency.

Mike Duran July 7, 2010 at 8:59 AM

Trudy, I agree about omniscient POV. “…the fact that the omniscient p.o.v. is out of style doesn’t make it ‘wrong.'” This was one of those things my first crit group said was a no-no, and as a beginner, I didn’t know enough to refute them. I simply trusted their opinion… which is one of the reasons I currently have mixed feelings about crit groups and conventional writerly wisdom. Appreciate your thoughts!

Donald S. Crankshaw July 7, 2010 at 9:04 AM

I’m not much of a fan of Peretti, but I’ve also noticed that writing strict POV is a pretty recent trend (by which I mean the last 20 years). Writers who’ve been writing longer than that often don’t follow it.

I think a lot of the rules are this way: they’re less rules than trends which are popular now, and could very well go away in ten or twenty years. Personally, I like a lot of the rules–I found strict POV much easier to read long before someone told me that’s how it should be. But I try to keep such things in perspective.

Tim George July 7, 2010 at 9:09 AM

Athol Dickson gave me a piece of valuable advice about writing rules a while back. He observed that writers should learn the rules, respect the rules, and observe the rules at the beginning of their career. Then as we perfect our craft, find our unique voice, and mature learn to tinker with the rules, bend the rule, and even ignore the rules at times.

If you compared Athol’s early work with Lost Mission you will see he did just that. Lost Mission break all kinds of current tenets of popular writing. It also won the Christy award for suspense.

I agree the danger of cookie cutter mentality is taking over the craft. But that is true of most things in our culture. What sells is considered successful – what doesn’t isn’t.

Merrie Destefano July 7, 2010 at 9:35 AM

The thing that’s most interesting to me is that the rules for literary and commercial fiction are almost diametrically opposed. One writing teacher can give you some awesome advice–for writing commercial fiction. Then if you happen to pick up a recent literary best-seller, you’ll see all those rules broken, left and right.

My advice: Learn the rules the best you can. There are almost too many to count. But then, after you’ve learned them and after you’ve studied a multitude of your own favorite novels, you can write your heart. I think the most important thing a writer can do–and it takes years–is to develop his/her own voice.

In my opinion, voice is why a reader will pick up your book rather than one by Dean Koontz or Stephanie Meyer or Frank Peretti. It doesn’t mean your book is better. Rather, your book is unique.

Jessica Thomas July 7, 2010 at 9:59 AM

I think some genres demand adherance to the rules more than others. When I read a thriller, I expect it to read a certain way. Whereas with literary fiction, I expect a certain amount of rule-breaking and stepping outside the box.

I’m a proponent of adapting style and rules to fit the story itself. The novel I’m currently working on is more thriller-esque which has required me to learn the rules. It’s been a good learning experience. Also a bit constraining. I’m always second guessing myself…have I stepped out of my character…is it okay to “tell”… On the other hand when I write satire, I make up the rules and it’s quite fun.

I allowed one of my scifi/satire short stories to be critiqued by a writing group. Comments were, “You need to clean up your adverbs” “You should always use ‘said’ for your dialogue tags.” Disappointing. I wanted to say, “It’s just a silly story people!” But I kept my mouth shut.

Mark July 7, 2010 at 11:12 AM

I find when I am enjoying a book, I don’t notice which rules are being broken. However, when a book is slow and irritating me, I suddenly notice how the author is telling me everything and not showing me anything. Does a bad book go along with not following the rules or is it the other way around? I don’t know, but I do know I notice them more together.

POV, however, is one of my biggest pet peeves. I don’t mind multiple view point stories as long as that is what the author set out to do. Most of the time I find that author’s switch heads at will in limited POV stories to tell us something instead of showing it, thereby breaking two rules at once.

As others have said, know the rules. It is what your reader expects. That way, when you do break them, you know you are doing it for a specific reason. If done well, I won’t even notice.

KC July 7, 2010 at 12:09 PM

I agree with you. The rules are good unless you let them hinder you from telling a good story.

I like how you equate literary legalism with spiritual legalism. I can so relate. I remember when I rededicated myself to Christ after graduating from high school. I got together with some avid believers and burned all of my cassette tapes that weren’t Christian music, as well as any occult-type books, paraphernalia, etc. This was over 20 years ago when spiritual warfare was big stuff.

Now, was it wrong for me to go all out, or so I thought, for Christ and to rid myself of secular distraction? No, of course not. But if that caused me to be prideful, less loving, or a host of other things contrary to scripture, well, then, yeah, it wasn’t so good. It could have distracted me from the bigger picture.

Which is your point in writing. I had a similar thing happen to me when I began writing. I started studying all those same rules and worked to put them into practice in my stories. Did it make me a more conscientious and better writer? Certainly. But did it help me tell stories? No. I’m the type that likes rules and to be told exactly how to do something. But most of writing isn’t that simple, and it has to come from inside the writer, or at least be drawn out creatively by someone else if the writer doesn’t have it inside her inherently.

Part of me wishes I would have been mentored without any rules (I’m already a stickler for spelling, grammar, and things making sense) and led into creatively bringing a story to life. Then the rules. But it’s too late for that. I’m positive that any creativity I had was stifled by trying to follow all of the rules. Or maybe I didn’t have any to begin with–still exploring that.

Bruce Hennigan July 7, 2010 at 7:11 PM

After spending 15 years writing drama for my church, I began to really understand the concept of “breaking the fourth wall”. There is an imaginary wall between the actors and the audience. The best dramas are those in which the audience is so drawn in by the story, they forget they are watching a play. The same is true for a book. As a reader, I want to work along side the author in discovering the heart and soul of the story. When the writing becomes so “obvious” I know longer feel like I’m walking beside the author, I am suddenly separated and disconnected from the story.
I had a hard time reading “The Oath” for the same reason you did. As an author, I want to make sure I invite the reader along with me on a journey of discovery and, hopefully, delight. So, I bring to my writing the principle of breaking through that fourth wall. These rules aren’t there to constrain us from our creativity. They are not there to serve as a device for easy rejection of unsolicited manuscripts. They are there for a reason. And as long as the author is true to the reader, the author will follow the rules when they serve the story. And, sometimes, toss them out the window when the journey gets wild and unpredictable. ?We need to make sure we take the readers with us and not leave them stranded on the road lost and alone without a roadmap.

BJ Muntain July 7, 2010 at 11:47 PM

I think the point is regular readers don’t care about the ‘rules’ if, as you say, you can take them with you. Point of view changes don’t phase a normal reader if they’re not obvious. Telling isn’t a sin if it doesn’t get boring or pull the reader out of the story.

My favourite author is Terry Pratchett. I’ve enjoyed his Discworld novels for many years. When people have suggested to me that he ‘breaks the rules’, I have to stop and think. Maybe he does move between points of view; doesn’t use chapter breaks; writes in long sentences at times… but I’d never noticed, and I still don’t unless I *want* to.

The thing is, do we write for writers — who will see these things — or for readers? I’m not a gardener — some would say I have a black thumb. I can appreciate a lovely garden, though. I might see how colours look next to each other, or a vertical accent among shorter plants; I can even name a number of flowers. Unless there are a lot of weeds, or a plant is completely dead, I might not notice anything. Put a gardener in the same garden, though, and they’ll see the dead leaves, the baby weeds, the poorer soil, the faded blooms — the minor banes of the garden.

Writers are the same way. They’ll find all the little problems, because that’s what they’ve developed their eye to see. The general reader will only notice if there’s something big, if there’s something that sticks out or gets in the way of the story or flow. The trick for the writer is to figure out what their target reader will see, and to make sure nothing will pull that reader out of the story. No matter what rules are followed or not.

Nicole July 8, 2010 at 6:56 AM

BJ, great point. I’ve argued this for some time. Writers are the best critics of how things are written, but the average reader just wants a story. Others argue those readers don’t know why they like a book–that it’s because the writing is done “right”, but really all they want is a good story. Besides “right” is relative in writing fiction.

BJ Muntain July 8, 2010 at 8:21 AM

Bingo! And look at Harry Potter — I’ve heard so many writers say Rowling did this wrong, and that wrong… but that didn’t stop her from selling millions of copies of all her books!

BJ Muntain July 8, 2010 at 8:23 AM

I should add — I’m not saying even bad writers can succeed. I’m saying that, as you said, the reader doesn’t care about the piddly writing details if the story is good enough.

Niki Turner July 9, 2010 at 11:44 AM

Do you suppose our writing rules are a lot like our man-made religious rules? Methods, formulas, and doctrines presented to the masses desperate to reach a goal, when what we really need is passion, heart, and love. Just a thought.

Mr Pond July 9, 2010 at 2:16 PM

Brilliant post, Mike. And intriguing timing (though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it miraculous). I’m in the midst of an interchange with another blog about this very subject–among other things.

Short version: we both of us cheered when we read your post. The rules are there to serve the writing, not the writing to serve the rules. And there’s a difference between knowing how to use the rules and then breaking them, and breaking them just out of laziness or ignorance. That sort of thing.

Shawn Lamb July 12, 2010 at 3:15 PM

As a newly published author, yet with years of screenwriting experience, I found that critique groups and bloggers who review book are dangerous when feed only the rules du jour.

Those who don’t study the writing craft over time, do not realize that styles change. Note, I said ‘styles’ not grammar rules. Those of us taught under the old style – prior to the 1990s – learned by a different set of style rules such as being encouraged to use “ly” adverbs or use words other than ‘said’ or ‘asked’ for dialogue tags. This “show don’t tell” and severe limiting of tags are a result of the shift in the 1990s.

Not to say, you can teach an old dog new tricks, but their are too many styles preferences masquerading as absolutes. If the ‘rules’ of today were applied, how many classic writers would pass the test? And five years from now, how a book written today stand up to the new rule changes?

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