writers tips / writing

When Do You Follow Writing Rules?

When you start writing, it sounds easy–write what you know. Pour what’s inside you out on the paper and like blowflies to a corpse, readers will find you.

Or go?

What if they don’t come? In fact, that’s usually the case. First, you experience denial, then anger, hate, and finally acceptance (I think I messed up step three): You need to learn more about how to write. You check out popular blogs, join a writers group, go to conferences, buy books by experts, and follow suggestions. Things like:

  • don’t use passive voice
  • don’t have too many POV characters
  • use picture nouns and action verbs

And readers still don’t come.

Which brings us to the topic of this post: When do you follow rules and when do you leap into space without a safety net? I’ve seen many rules crushed to oblivion in print until even the fat lady stopped singing. The one I’m thinking of right now is Point of View. It used to be hard and fast: Don’t head hop. Now, I see it all over the place, in authors I respect and books I’ve given five star ratings as a Vine Voice, even in my capacity as reviewer for other writers’ publicists. It would seem that following rules is as flexible as a politician and his promises.

Here’s what agents and successful writers say about rules:

  • Albert Zuckerman, in Writing the Blockbuster Novel: “…in fiction as in art, there are no precise rules. If an author is brilliant enough to make his book work and at the same time disregard what is generally accepted as a key element of craft, then it works.”
  • Noah Lukeman, in the First Five Pages: “Most of the truly great artists have broken all the rules and this is precisely what has made them great. … There are no rules to assure great writing.”
  • William Noble, Noble’s Book of Writing Blunders: “You can’t allow yourself to be so controlled [by rules] that you shiver and shake when the urge to break them comes.”
  • Bob Mayer, The Novel Writer’s Toolkit: “Understand these skills [rules], and then use your  brilliance to figure out a way to change the technique … to overcome …roadblocks.”

They all agree on the importance of NOT placing ‘rules’ over ‘genius’. If your writing is break-through quality, agents and publishers will embrace your broken rules. It’s a decision unburdened by the facts of what’s publishable and what’s not, oiled by the WD40 of your prose. Who cares that you re-invented the wheel to spin a tale no reader could put down? They will not notice that you used ‘was’ too often or had four adverbs in front of a verb rather than the max of two. You are Hemingway-esque, or the Next Tom Clancy.

But, most of us aren’t that blockbuster writer. We want to write well enough to make a living doing what we love. We’ll take celebrity but settle for survive. How-to-write authors (like the list above) have made fortunes providing that caliber of writer with templates for success replete with rules, regulations, must-do’s and don’t-do’s, because for most of us, the rules matter and following them makes us a better writer.

Here’s what you need to know: Never follow a rule over a cliff.

There is a method to breaking rules. The people who can get away with it are those who:

  • know the rules and
  • break them intentionally to further their writing

What’s that mean to you? Study your craft. Read books, take classes, attend seminars. Own it. Then, you can color outside the lines.

Jacqui Murray is the editor of a K-6 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, creator of two technology training books for middle school and six ebooks on technology in education. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blog, Technology in Education featured blogger, IMS tech expert, and a bi-weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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12 thoughts on “When Do You Follow Writing Rules?

  1. The foundation rule I follow is never confuse your reader. Breaking the rules may broaden your readership or your genre or whatever but if your reader gets confused, no amount of awesomeness will win them back.


  2. I love your rule about the cliff. I would also say, never follow a rule into a windowless, airless box.

    But really I came here to say that, while I certainly know I’m not in a class with Thomas Pynchon, Virginia Woolf, or even Stieg Larsson (writers I’ve read recently who really laugh heartily at the rules), everything I write is written with the intention and desire to become that brilliant. If I go back over my writing and rules it up (so to speak), that will never bring it over the line from mediocre to brilliant. So the rules seem kind of irrelevant to me. If I’m just writing to (hope to) make a living, it could be any job. I could get a better ROI from my current work.

    That said, I do enjoy learning from you, and as I write, there are times when I can utilize your tips. But I never think of them as rules. Thanks.


  3. This is a great post. A lot of writers forget this nugget when they are spouting the rules, but it’s clear when you read their writing. Glad you stated it so plainly.

    This would make a great syndicated post on my blog. I’d love to promote you through it. If you’re interested, send me an email. I’ll promote a book along with it if you want.



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