Rules are Meant to be Broken

Many of us come to a weekly writing workshop, a writers group or an MFA program looking for rules, instructions, some correct route to take as we navigate our way through our work.

Let me tell you after years with my own writing and helping friends and students alike, THERE ARE NO RULES.

Sure, there’s the basic grammar we all learn in elementary school. And oh, yeah, there’s a right way to spell most words. But when it comes to creative writing, even these steadfast rules are meant to be bent and sometimes even broken. Any author, living or dead, who’s ever tried to write in vernacular (for better or worse), will tell you that sometimes you just have to write it the way it sounds, even if it’s wrong.

Still we writers long for a few trustworthy guidelines. It’s a lonely job. Most of us never really know if we’re doing it right. But the simple realization that everyone feels like they’re “…driving a car at night” as E.L. Doctorow once put it, is a big step on the journey.

In last week’s Guardian article, Ten rules for writing fiction, a couple dozen illustrious authors offer their own best tips, starting with Elmore Leonard’s classic “Using adverbs is a mortal sin.” (Yes, we all occasionally use adverbs.)

No rules
What I found most comforting were the many contradictions:

P.D. James: Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing…


Jonathan Franzen: Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

I also loved Diana Athill’s recommendation: “Read it aloud …because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK.”

Those of you who work with me know that I insist on reading aloud. I’m well aware that details often get lost in the listening. But the things that do stick in our minds – whether a plot point, character detail, an awkward rhythm or something else – are the critical pieces that tell us what works and what doesn’t.

These tips lists intone the need for discipline, hard work and persistence:

Neil Gaiman:
1) Write.
2) Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
3) Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

Margaret Atwood: Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

Helen Simpson: The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying, “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert) which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”

Also the need for occasional breaks:

Helen Dunmore: A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.

Hilary Mantel: If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.

And then there’s the implicit or blunt futility in their advice. Call it schadenfreude, but it somehow helps to know that we aren’t the only ones who struggle.

Margaret Atwood: Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

Will Self: You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.

And finally, my favorite, all too TRUE:

Roddy Doyle: Do not place a photograph of your favorite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.

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  • Sandra

    I will not whine. I will not whine. I will not whine. There, I wrote today.

    I keep Natalie Goldberg’s Zen teacher’s words on a Post-It on my desk: Continue under all circumstances.

  • Lua

    I love reading about those ten rules 🙂
    Some of them I even write down on small pieces of papers and stick them on to my bathroom mirror- but secretly I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able to write things where I can break all the rules. I can see that most of the masterpieces, and the books I enjoy reading (I think two of the many example here would be John Fowles and William Faulkner) have broken all those basic rules of writing.
    But I guess for now I’m better off following some basic guidelines 🙂

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