These 6 Writing Rules Are Killing Your Stories
After all, rules are made to be broken…
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As a writer, you may come across many rules.
I’ve always found this funny because writing to me is an art. The scratching of pen on paper is like music to my ears. The smell of new books is contested by only the feel of crisp paper beneath my fingertips. The words flowing in and out of my mind evoke deep emotion and understanding inside me as they rattle my heart.
So basically, I enjoy poetic nonsense.
The thing is, writing is flexible. It’s dynamic. So when I pick up a book that yells at me about improper grammar or scroll through a blog post screaming at about sentence structure, I can’t help but crack a smile.
I’m here to explain why these six ‘rules’ are absolute rubbish.
#1: Always replace the word “said” in dialogue
These are all dialogue tags. And they’re all bloody useless.
Let’s use this as a quick example:
“I want pizza!” Jamie exclaimed.
First, let’s establish that Jamie is a greedy bastard. I don’t have pizza, and I’m certainly not buying Jamie any.
Second, Jamie exclaimed. Yet, there is an exclamation mark right after her statement. So why do we need to emphasize that she is exclaiming something?
“I want pizza!” Jamie said.
Or, better yet:
Jamie pounded her fists against the table. “I want pizza!”
Jamie grinned, her fists pumping in the air. “I want pizza!”
Jamie stared at the stained coupons lying in the palm of her hand. “I want pizza!”
You get the point. Using “said” is not forbidden, nor is adding in a short sentence for action.
#2: Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction
And. But. Because. Or.
My arrogantly righteous eleven-year-old self used to get ticked off at my teachers for lowering my marks whenever I used conjunctions at the start of my sentences. As a kid brought up on the internet, it was delightfully simple to pull up an article or two on the matter and find that they were wrong.
The world will not burn and crumble to ash because you used a conjunction at the start of a sentence. Especially if you’re writing fiction, it’s sometimes needed to convey the voice of a character.
As long as you’re not being repetitive or pulling readers out of your writing… it’s fine.
#3: Add as many adjectives and adverbs as humanly possible to your writing
In grade school, adding more description is everything. And although that may have worked in 1805, it’s no longer relevant.
Description was essential back then because people had never really traveled outside their homes. They’d never seen exotic animals or plants. They’d never experienced other cultures.
Nowadays, we have photographs and planes and the internet. It’s likely that as soon as you say “hyena” or “humpback whale”, readers have already formed an image in their mind. You do not need to spend an entire page describing the eyes of a hyena or the cry of a humpback whale.
If you do, you might end up in the world of purple prose. Although purple prose is often beautiful, it can become a block to the reader if it’s too complicated.
“One who sees through the orotundity and sesquipedality in purple prose will say something indicative of notable worth.”
— Anyaele Sam Chiyson
And hey — I’m not saying description is terrible. In fact, I’m reading Caraval by Stephanie Garber at the moment and absolutely loving it, despite the purple prose littering the pages.
What I’m saying is, write like every sentence is your last.
If it’s full of description, go for it. If it’s short and sweet, go for it. But make sure you’re not adding in extra words because you think that’s what readers want. Write what you want to read, and chances are your readers will love it.
#4: Never use “You” or “I” in professional writing
When writing essays in school, that was the golden rule. And although it makes sense in some contexts, not all “professional writing” must be written in a third-person perspective.
If you want your writing to reach a large audience — and most, if not all, writers do — you have to consider how to make it easier for your readers. The words “you” and “I” help solidify a connection with the reader and create a smoother reading process.
I recently took an online scientific writing course at Stanford University. The professor insisted that writing in first-person should not be taboo in scientific literature. She said that writing in first-person encourages accountability in science and sets an easy tone for laypeople. I do not have enough knowledge to contest that statement, but I know I like actually understanding what I’m reading.
You can still use third-person in your writing. If you do it right, that’s absolutely fine.
The point is that it’s a recommendation, not a requirement.
The point is, don’t feel forced to write a certain way because it’s deemed “professional”.
#5: Avoid sentence fragments
My writing is full of them.
Although many can be revised into oblivion, sometimes I feel sentence fragments don’t deserve enough credit. In writing, there are always times to avoid sentence fragments. But if you want to set a conversational tone, they’re pretty damn helpful.
In my experience, people tend to avoid sentence fragments (and run-on sentences) like the plague, even when they can help your writing flow at times. This is one of those ambiguous rules — sometimes you follow it, sometimes you don’t.
It’s all up to you, buddy. But don’t start thinking you’re a failure because you forgot to edit out a couple of sentence fragments from your piece.
#6: Make your paragraphs lengthy and boring
Okay, this one isn’t exactly a rule.
But you may have noticed yourself, in school, desperately reaching to achieve a word count minimum.
I’ve always thought that was bloody stupid.
The problem with asking students to write more words is…
Bigger is not always better.
Bigger chunks of writing can actually detract from the overall intention of the message. They can pile on meaningless metaphors and allegories that, frankly, no one wants to read, much less your overworked and underpaid teacher who probably has a million better things to do.
And when students make their sentences larger, they tend to write:
The substance in the cake had the ability to reduce catalytic activity, and it was digested by Javier.
Javier ate the poisoned cake.
The first sentence is wasteful (duh) and uses passive tense, which is a big no-no. If you’re curious about why passive tense is a no-no, check out this helpful Grammarly article.
In short, don’t try to write like a dead person. Or a scientist.
Rules in writing are essential.
But remember that they’re not rigid things. They’re fluid. Malleable.
Rules are made to be broken.
It’s important for writers to understand this, but also the critics and commenters and self-proclaimed grammar nuts. Writing is an art. There is no ‘right way’ or ‘wrong way’ to create something beautiful.
The rules criticized in this article are valid and applicable in the proper contexts. There are places where you shouldn’t use a conjunction at the start of your sentence and where you should use a third-person omniscient view in writing.
But that’s what they are. Shoulds and shouldn’ts. Not cant’s and cannots. So, by all means, experiment with your writing. Understand the rules, and then rip them into pieces. Sometimes, that’s what it takes to grow as a writer.
I read the rules before I broke ‘em
I broke the chains before they choked me out
And I pay close attention
Really learn the code
I learned to read the map before I hit the road
Nobody’s gonna see me comin’
Nobody’s gonna hear a sound
No matter how hard they tryin’
No stoppin’ me since I’ve found
My inner ninja [x4]
– Inner Ninja, Classified ft. David Myles
Fellow writers, find your inner writing ninja.
Screw the rules.