Rules that beg to be broken

A post at Jane Friedman’s blog: Writing Rules That Beg to Be Broken

Instant reaction: YAY!

I’m just not a fan of writing rules, especially proscriptive rules such as “don’t use adverbs” or “don’t use dialogue tags other than said” or “don’t tell,” which is explicit in “show, don’t tell.”

Anyway, I don’t like proscriptive rules, and I’m not even keen on prescriptive rules. Naturally I at once nod in complete agreement when someone begins a post about writing rules that beg to be broken; I think that’s basically all the rules.

Which rules are particularly pulled out by this post? Let’s take a look:

I despise rules. Always have. Rules are for accountants and architects, assembly line workers and neurosurgeons. In order to be successful in those professions, there are procedures that must always be followed, variations that must never be employed. The word creative, however, as in the phrase creative writing, demands, at the very least, an imaginative interpretation of the rules.

Oh, whoops, I’m cheering much, much less. Did you need to start your post by dissing everybody in the universe who isn’t a creative writer? Also, are you absolutely sure you want to declare that architects aren’t creative? Or, for that matter, neurosurgeons?

I get what this guy means — who is this? — Randall Silvis. Well, I get what he means, and I grant that mostly we do not want our accountants to be THAT creative when keeping our taxes in order, but architects, really? Regardless, there was no need to start this post by swiping at assembly line workers or anyone else. Ugh. Not sure this creative writer had his rational brain engaged when he wrote that paragraph.

Still, back to the part about writing rules. What are the rules this person wants to break? There are four:

Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. –> Do people take that as a rule? Maybe some people do. I don’t really think of it as a popular overstated rule. I do editing as I go, and sometimes I pause and do significant re-writing because I can see I’m going to have to and it bugs me to have that revision waiting ahead of me instead of done. I do agree that it may be wiser, in some cases, for some people, including me sometimes, to blast straight ahead until the draft is finished. It depends.

Write what you know. –> Yeah, that one is seriously overstated.

Show, don’t tell. –> There it is, good, by all means drive a stake through the heart of this rule. Or better: explain what showing is, explain what telling is, and provide examples of good fiction where both are used effectively. The Intern did this on her regrettably long-defunct blog. I have a small sample here.

The writing life is mostly a lonely, miserable life. –> This is not a rule. This is an assumption. It is a mistake to lose track of the putative point of your post and head off in another direction. If you do that, you need to come up with a different title and signal in the introduction that you aren’t planning to stick to rules; that your post is about myths or whatever, not about rules.

Overall, I’m disappointed in this post. What writing rules do I personally think beg to be broken? All of them, when appropriate, but which specifically are the worst? I’ve done posts like that before, but quick, a top ten list off the top of my head:

–Kill your darlings

–Write what you know

–Show don’t tell

–Don’t use adverbs (or, heaven help us, adjectives)

–Only use “said”

–Don’t use “said”

–Don’t use long words when you could use short words

–Don’t use “be” verbs

–You can’t start quietly / you have to start with action

–You have to outline

All of the above are wrong for lots of writers SOME of the time, and direly wrong for SOME writers all of the time.

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4 thoughts on “Rules that beg to be broken”

  1. I just got home from a writing conference where many of these ‘rules’ were prescribed by editors, though to be fair, most of them added nuance and pointed out that once you know ‘the rules’ they can, and should, be broken, and even cited examples of how.

  2. We have plenty of English teachers who impose their own rules on students. And what are those rules? They are proscriptive. Don’t use semicolons. Don’t use “it.” Don’t use “be” verbs. It is a terrible disservice to students, who should be told how to use all those things effectively, not forbidden to use them.

    It seems to me that all these other rules — don’t use adverbs, don’t use said — are EXACTLY the same as those proscriptive English Comp I rules. EXACTLY the same. They are ways of saying, “Don’t learn to write effectively, just simplify the English language to the “for dummies” version because that’s way easier.” It’s not easier. It’s a way of limiting yourself in ways the English language does not require.

    That also applies to “show don’t tell.” That’s a way of saying “Combining telling with showing to write a compelling narrative is hard, so rather than learning to do that, just don’t tell, always show.” Anyone who tries to take that advice too strictly then winds up with problems that were never necessary. Also, it actually isn’t hard as long as you don’t fret too much about whether you’re telling or showing, and just concentrate on writing effective prose.

    Or that’s my definite opinion, anyway. I need to do a blog post just on telling/showing, with examples. In fact, I will.

  3. Patricia Wrede has some discussions of showing versus telling on her blog. A search for Showing produces hits. If anyone wants to go look. She’s pretty good at creating examples on the fly that convey what she’s describing. And the one I just looked at actually defined showing. And telling. With examples.

  4. Thanks, Elaine! That’s a great post, and provides a great look at telling and why telling is useful:

    “Telling” the reader something is most obviously important when the writer needs to move lightly over a long period of time. “The long, dangerous trip to Byzantium took them six months, and they were nearly captured by pirates twice, but they arrived safely at last just in time for the coronation” lets the reader know that a) six months have passed, b) they were probably fairly eventful months, but c) the events aren’t particularly important to this story. Telling is also highly useful for background and plot-related exposition where there’s so much necessary material to get through that doing it all in dialog would be implausible, would slow the pace to a crawl, and would take far too many pages.

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