Saturday, February 23, 2013

Rules, Rules, and... More Rules?

Photo courtesy of wallyir of
I’ve been keeping track of the “rules” of writing as shared in various places online where I lurk or participate. Interestingly, more often than not (much to my dismay), these “rules” are applied in sweeping, legalistic, and extreme fashion. Guidelines intended to strengthen writing by LIMITING certain words and phrases are shoved down people’s throats as something entirely different. And just to make it all the more fun, the rules seem to change, without warning.

Until I learned to put these "rules" in their proper place and perspective, they felt like an ever-tightening chain that became heavier every day, threatening to snuff the life right out of my writing.

Here are some of the ones I’ve seen pushed using the extreme application I so often see:

  1. No adverbs. (This appears to be many people’s favorite witch-hunt. Adverbs are apparently truly evil, doncha know? - And, yes, I did that double-adverb on purpose. *G*)
  2. No -ing words. (Regardless of the fact that some NOUNS and ADJECTIVES are very valuable -ing words.)
  3. No -ed words. (Yep, I’ve run into that one, too, believe it or not! Just try to write in past tense without them. I dare you.)
  4. No dialogue tags (he said, she said, and any variations on "said" that you can think of). (Use beats only.)
  5. Don’t use a name to start a paragraph. (You don’t want to start every paragraph with a name, but come on!)
  6. No weasel words - just, as, seem, was, that, were, to be, really, often, usually, like, well, might, very, rather, began, started, some, suddenly, immediately, decided, wondered, thought, once, some, most, many, a lot, a few, more, a little, a bit, nearly, almost, quite, rather, anyway, even, knew, felt, would/could/should, up/down/back, is, are, had, have been - to name but a few (he he). There are more and the list is ever-growing as people decide one word or another is evil - depends on the source you check.
  7. Don’t start a sentence with or, and, or but. And to go along with THAT rule...
  8. Use only complete, grammatically correct sentences, no fragments.
  9. No italics.
  10. Show, don't tell. (Regardless of which works best for a given spot? Please. Sometimes, telling is a good thing. Sometimes, it's not.)
  11. Never begin two or more sentences in a row with the same word or phrase.

Amazingly enough, I’ve also seen “no adjectives” pop up a time or two. What’s to be deemed evil next? Nouns? Pronouns? *sigh*

The only place any of these rules can (usually) be broken is in dialogue. (I say “usually” because I’ve even run up against the occasional individual who insists breaking some of these rules makes for “weak” dialogue, too.) The only exception being the use of “alright” in lieu of “all right”. The former is NEVER acceptable, even in dialogue, and just might get you shot. Well, maybe not anything that extreme (at least not that I’ve heard about so far), but it may get you declared a hack amateur by those who fret over such things. Apparently, it doesn’t matter how widely accepted it is, even by some publishers or dictionaries, there are some who just hold a disdain for this word. Some authors avoid criticism simply by never using either "alright" or "all right", period. People fret over the oddest things sometimes.

Anyway, here’s a writing exercise for those of you who are off-center like me. Take a scene you’ve written (copy to a new document, of course - do NOT use your original) and apply all of these rules as strictly as they are often pushed. See what you end up with.

If you are REALLY whacked and LOVE a challenge, try it with an entire chapter.  he he 

Am I saying we should blow off the “rules”? No. You DO need to know the “rules” of writing. They can help you write stronger and better. BUT keep them in proper perspective and apply them with common sense, reason, and balance. Recognize that they are guidelines, not absolute rules never to be broken lest you be burned at the stake, or at least blackballed by the entire publishing industry.

Don't let the "rules" snuff the life out of your writing, or your JOY in writing. Throw off the chains of writing-rules-legalism and write to your heart's content!

Photo courtesy of matthew_hull @

So, what about YOU? Have you ever found yourself stifled by any of the above rules being shoved down your throat in their extreme forms? Have you been confronted with "rules" that aren't listed above? If so, please share!

BTW - to see the winner of the free autographed copy of my latest book, PROMISES, check out the comments on the Home blog post.


  1. Sure, I've felt stifled.
    Have wondered if ALL writers will begin to sound/read alike - no individualism in voice and/or style. I also see some merit in keeping SOME of the rules. Sentence structure is important for interpretation by the reader.
    RULES I abhor -
    I even had one gal tell me to use the brogue or dialect for the reader to get to KNOW the character but drop it after the first chapter as it would hinder or tire the reader. IN which case, how does on keep that specific character consistent, I wonder.
    EXPANDING (yes- I began this with an ING word) on something Ane Mulligan has stated many times over - "RULES ARE TO BE USED AS GUIDELINES" - if it's important to the story to bend or break a rule - make sure you are consistent and don't overplay it -
    AND, that's my take on it. ';)

    1. Ane is SO RIGHT! So are you, Joy. How we use and choose at times to disregard the "rules" comes together to make our author voices unique. It feels at times like some out there are trying to make us all write and sound the same. I'm not sure if that's their intent, but it sure has the potential if we complied with the "rules" the way they're pushed at times.

  2. Did you mention no exclamation points, no semicolons, and no ellipses? (I realize I have a triple negative here. LOL)

    I've been attending writers' conferences for forty years and publishing longer than that. I was never confronted by so many "rules" until I joined ACFW. I've been published by several houses and worked with a number of editors. They all had their own style and none were anywhere near as restrictive or unforgiving. I never heard any of my editors say they would reject a manuscript the minute they found an exclamation point. If they didn't like it they grabbed the blue pencil.

    1. I completely forgot that one (or rather those 3)! Doh! How could I have forgotten? I've seen those as well.

  3. Hi, Dawn. Some of those "rules" are just plain whacked. Crazy. Nutso. Demented. I'm tough on new writers when it comes to adverbs because they tend to use them excessive... too much! *grin* I'm reminded of this story about Sir Winston Churchill: he was upbraided by a woman for ending sentences with prepositions. He replied, "Madam, that is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put." Take THAT!