As a new writer, you’ll have heard, or will hear, some of the most famous writing rules to exist. But as the famous saying goes, ‘rules are made to be broken’. But in order to know how to break them, you must first know what they are.
There are the basic writing rules you learn when you’re young, such as where to put in commas (spoiler alert: nearly everyone either puts in too many commas or not enough commas, so don’t sweat it) or how to paragraph properly (please learn this one!), but the following rules are kept to fictional stories only (mostly).
1. Show, don’t tell
The number one writing rule every writer hears. Take comfort in the fact every writer has probably adhered to this, but has also broken it. Probably numerous times. Also take comfort in the fact all writers started out the way new writers do, and why this rule is told every time to a new writer.
When you first begin writing, it’s typically when you’re still learning how to write. You’ll probably begin with the very basics of a story, but you’re telling it. You’re telling the reader what’s happening rather than showing it, such as:
“The man walked to the shop and bought some milk. He was happy. He went home.”
It’s simple, but you’ve only told us about the man walking to the shop and buying milk instead of showing it. This is typically when teachers will tell you to use your five senses to liven up the description and go beyond the simple paragraph above, such as:
“The man walked to his local shop to buy some milk so he could make his favourite cup of tea. He searched the shelves until he found the small, green labelled, plastic milk bottle, and strode over to the cashier. Fishing in his pockets for money, he handed over the warm coins and smiled. He walked out the shop, a skip to his step, ready to make his cup of tea.”
The above paragraph is more engaging than the simple one I used before. However, as you can also see, I didn’t just show what the man was doing. I told you why he was buying some milk in the first place. Obviously, it’d be impossible not to tell some of the time, but there are times, especially in third person, when the reader needs to know something the main character doesn’t. For example:
“The man walked along, ready to make his cup of tea when he got home. But the news that would greet him when he arrived would make him forget all about his tea.”
As a reader, we’re intrigued now to know what’ll happen to the man when he arrives home. This small piece of telling is fine because we’ve showed the man getting his milk to make his tea before.
As a writer, learn how to show, then learn how to weave the telling in. A balance between the two is important and necessary.
2. Write what you know
This is an interesting piece of advice because it’s both necessary and not.
As a new writer, writing what you know is a brilliant basis. Typically, you start writing because you enjoy exploring and experimenting with what’s familiar to you. Perhaps you had a friend who did something truly hilarious and you want to develop a story around it. Perhaps something wild happened to you that deserves to be told, but probably exaggerated.
However, there are two problems with this piece of advice.
1. You’ll restrict yourself by only writing from your own perspective about your own life. Or perhaps you’ll expand it to people you know, but it’ll still restrict you to what you write about. Depending what type of story you’re writing, or if you’re writing a non fiction version of events, writing what you know is perfect. But generally, it’s a good foundation and that’s all.
2. Unless you’re a time traveller, immortal, an alien or a mythical creature, you can’t possibly know what any of that’s like. You can’t know exactly what it was like to live in the 1100’s, even with extensive research. You definitely can’t know what it’s like to live in space. You can’t know what it’s like to use magic literally, unless you use virtual reality. These kinds of stories/scenarios require you to use your imagination and write beyond what you know. They require you to imagine what it’d be like to live on a planet different from ours.
3. Don’t use adverbs
This one really varies on the writer giving this advice. Some writers don’t agree with this advice, while others stick by it resolutely. And they’d definitely shun me for my last sentence.
I understand why some writers are against adverbs. Sometimes they really aren’t necessary. Adding an adverb to the end of a sentence when it’s not needed is a common mistake new writers make. For example, they might write ‘he mumbled gravely’. In this context, we don’t need the adverb because you could show it instead. Additionally, it doesn’t really add anything to the scene or character, so why use it?
However, sometimes adverbs can add to a description in a way that other words can’t. For example, saying ‘a female skipped along’ is good, but ‘a female skipped along merrily’ adds a little extra. Those anti-adverb writers would say that’s a waste of valuable words, but I think it really does depend on the context. If you like adverbs, use them liberally and you’ll be fine.
4. Don’t have a prologue
This depends entirely on the story.
I’ll agree that some stories really don’t require a prologue. Because sometimes the prologue is just the main action scene but told at the start to excite the reader. Or other times it circles back round to the end of the story, which really makes you question why you needed it in the first place. Sometimes it’s an action packed scene to start the story, or set the tone, but then their first chapter is the most mundane chapter and you’re left wondering why that wasn’t the starting place.
But some prologues really work too. For example, in The Humans by Matt Haig, his prologue was setting up what the protagonist had done without giving anything away. He presumed the audience (i.e. his home planet) had already known what he’d done and he was filling them in. It was a good way to set up the story and get us interested, because we were then curious to know what he’d done.
5. Write everyday & read regularly
I understand why it’s a writing rule. Both are vitally important if you want to be a writer. However, to write everyday and read regularly requires you to purposefully slot that time into your day. I’m not saying there’s anything bad with that, but when you have an active social live (which society says you need), it can be hard to find that time. You have to be prepared to give up something to read or write, and that’s the first big issue.
Additionally, most the writers who tell you this are published and this is their full time job. They have time to read and write as they please. Most ordinary people don’t. Their 9to-5 jobs take up their time, and if it doesn’t, something else demands their attention. Some writers are sympathetic of this and understand it’s not possible to write everyday. Even regularly can be hard.
My advice? Read and write when you can. Developing a routine is very important, especially when reading and writing, but acknowledge what you are like. If your life is hectic, don’t feel guilty for not regularly committing to reading or writing. If you can only read certain books at certain times, don’t feel bad for that. If you can only write little snippets in really obscure places, don’t feel bad for that. You’ve gotta make the commitment to do this, sure, but fit it around you and what works best for you, not what some other writers say.
These rules are basic writing rules I’ve heard over my ten years of writing and the number one advice I can give from them all is:
All writing rules (asides from the absolute basics) are advice by other writers you don’t have to agree with.
Honestly, some writers will say their rules are ‘you should only write in the morning’ or ‘write for x amount of hours everyday’. It works for them but it might not work for you and that’s okay. Find what works for you. Figure out how to bend/break the rules, but learn them first. Counterintuitive, I know. But I promise, it helps.
Write how and what you wanna write. Anything else is learning and creating, just like baking a cake. You gotta learn how to bake that cake, then you can create it whatever way you want.
Are there any writing rules I missed? What rules do you agree/disagree with?