Are There Writing Rules or Not?
A few years ago I joined a bunch of writing groups on Facebook. I wanted to see what writers were talking about—I wanted to understand what questions they were asking in hopes that I’d learn how to better help my clients and students.
I jumped in here or there to offer support or weigh in when someone was asking for feedback. But it didn’t take long for me to start pulling back and feel some hesitation about responding. I started reading conversations that might start like this:
“I got notes back from my editor and she suggested I cut back on my adverbs, that choosing stronger verbs is better. But I often like the adverbs and don’t really want to make the changes. Any advice?”
There’d be some back and forth about the pros and cons of adverbs. Someone might quote Stephen King’s On Writing. But then, inevitably, this commenter would weigh in:
“I’m sick of hearing about writing “rules” from so-called gurus. I say screw the rules. Who’s with me?!”
Lots of people, apparently. The comment would get a bunch of likes and some “Preach” responses and then the conversation would die away.
I do feel some kinship with this anti-authority position. There’s no writing tribunal to hand down the definitive ruling on these matters, and since grammar and writing rules were pounded into our heads in school, sometimes we just don’t wanna anymore. Plus, social media has made our communication more casual. And, of course, art allows for artistry.
But the kinship I feel is a thin one. I think this resistance to “rules” is sometimes cover for not wanting to learn or understand how writing works and what effect it has on the reader. Frankly, an I’m going to do whatever I want attitude is often a short-sighted approach that leaves the writer alone, with no readers.
Most writers do follow basic writing rules — periods and question marks at the end of sentences, capitalization rules, etc. That’s the easy stuff. It’s the less intuitive writing tenets, the ones that we might not just pick up on, even though we’re readers, that are usually at issue.
I hate to be harsh, so I’m going to let Chuck Wendig do some of the dirty work for me. He says:
“Writing has rules. Storytelling has fewer rules, and certainly more flexible ones. But actual writing has legit rules. It’s not math, not exactly—but things do add up a certain way and we are beholden to either apply the rules to our work or break the rules to create a specific effect. You don’t just break the rules because it’s fun, or worse, because you don’t know them. That latter is where a lot of new writers fall. They simply don’t know that things work a certain way, and when you write in contravention to These Certain Ways, we can all smell it. It’s stinky. Your prose gains the vinegar stink of flopsweat as you galumph about on the stage of the page, not knowing how to actually do this thing you promised us that you can do.”Chuck Wendig
Even though you have absolute authority over the domain of your work, you don’t want to delude yourself that your reader will not care about the way in which you present your story to them.
If the idea of writing rules feels restrictive for you, maybe you could think about them more as guidelines and principles. Some more thoughts to chew on:
“Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.”Truman Capote
“There are no final rules of writing, only consequences and effects of the choices you make on the page. (One of which might be no one wants to read or publish you. But do your thing, if you want!)Matt Bell
“You can do it if you can get away with it, really means: you can break or ignore the rules IF you are willing to give something back that blots out the infraction, or compensates for it – something that distracts the reader with a little micro-burst of joy that makes her forget “rules” and “infractions” because she’s just had the lovely experience of being drawn deeper into an entirely made-up, fictive world.”George Saunders
Laws of perspective. Light and shade. Consequences and effects. Giving something back. Now we’re talking. The craft of writing doesn’t always need to be prescriptive, but it is value-based. You may not value “rules”, but you must value your reader.
Artists in any discipline you can think of have to practice technique. Writers are no different. Maybe the most brilliant among us can go it alone, but most of us need to read writing craft books, take classes, study good writing, listen to teachers and editors. Then we’ll know why we’re making certain choices. Then we can weigh our options. And then we can go do our thing.