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May 12, 2020

Breaking the “Rules”: Will It Be Easy or Hard?

Long crack in the mortar of a brick wall with text: Is It Hard to Break a Writing Rule?

We’ve probably all heard the advice: Don’t edit as you go. Finish the draft first, then edit.

But as I’ve talked about here many times, most advice out there is not “one size fits all.” Like many other tidbits of advice, this common tip about drafting vs. editing definitely shouldn’t be taken as a rule.

Can we know how to treat writing advice that we come across? When should we treat a tip like a hard-and-fast rule? When is it more like a guideline? And when is advice just reflecting a personal preference? Let’s take a look…

The Writing Advice Spectrum

There are very few true writing rules out there—the type that we definitely shouldn’t break. For just about any example we could think of, probably someone else could think of an example that succeeded despite the rule-breaking.

Umm…okay, here’s one. We must use words in our written stories. *grin*

In truth, virtually all advice falls into one of two categories: guidelines and preferences. What’s the difference?

Writing Advice Guidelines:

Guidelines, well…guide us toward the “best practices” that can help us be more successful as a writer. Guidelines have to do with everything from grammar rules to the structure of stories.

We can break them, but doing so can cause problems with readers, who might expect something different. In other words, unless we know what we’re doing, we should respect the guidelines and save “coloring outside the lines” for when we have a good enough reason to be willing to take the risk.

Writing Advice Preferences:

As I’ve complained about before, far too many writers share advice about what others “should” do when really, they’re just stating their personal preferences. They found something that worked for them, and now they think that’s the best or only way to do it—for everyone.

Preferences have to do with things like how we “should” plot our stories in advance vs. write by the seat of our pants. Or like how we “should” write every day. And so on.

These pieces of advice might be valid to try at least once, just to see if it works for us. But we should also feel free to ignore it just as quickly and easily.

How Can We Tell Where Advice Falls on the Spectrum?

When we hear advice, how can we know which category it falls into? How can we tell how much thought or effort we should put into it before ignoring the tip?

If we go back and look at the examples I listed, we might see a pattern within each of the categories:

Recognizing Guidelines:

Guidelines typically affect aspects of our writing that readers will see (and be able to judge):

  • Readers have been exposed to stories their whole life, so they instinctively recognize the structure of stories, building up stakes and conflict, developing characters, etc. Stories that don’t feel like a story to them will be judged and possibly found unsatisfying.
  • Readers know many of the grammar rules, so writers who break the rules willy-nilly will be judged. (Heck, I’ve even received reader email in appreciation of my proper use of subjunctive mood in my stories, which is a fairly obscure grammar rule.)

In other words, if readers will see a difference if we break the advice, we should consider it a guideline. We can still break it if we want, but we should have a reason for doing so and know what we’re doing.

Some writers want to break these guidelines just because they want to be contrary. That’s their call, but it comes with a risk.

We (and our story) might be better off if we don’t unnecessarily distract readers or cause judgments that could affect reviews. Unless we’re writing only for ourselves, the choices we make for our stories will affect readers’ impressions.

Recognizing Preferences:

Preferences typically cover aspects of our writing processes. Many different processes can lead to the same end, so any specific process is simply a personal preference:

  • Readers will never be able to tell from our finished story whether we plotted in advance or drafted by the seat of our pants. Either way, the result of a successful process will be a finished book.
  • Readers will never be able to tell from our finished story whether we wrote every day or only drafted on the weekends. Either way, the result of writing to the end will be a finished draft.

In other words, if the advice is about processes that readers will never see, we should consider it a personal preference. We can try it if we want, but we can also just as easily ignore the advice.

This type of advice is sometimes referred to as “sausage making.” No one needs to know what goes on behind the scenes, so we should give the advice only as much weight as we want (or don’t want). Our choice—and the risks of choosing differently—affects only us, not readers or their judgment or satisfaction with our story.

Case Study: Editing As You Go

Going back to the example I mentioned in the beginning, “don’t edit as you go” is advice about our process. Sure, it can be helpful advice to those writers who might otherwise get so bogged down in editing their early pages that they never finish the draft. But it’s also just as valid to ignore the advice if that concern doesn’t apply to us or our process.

My copyeditor, Julie Glover, recently wrote a fantastic blog post “In Defense of Editing as You Go.” She shared 4 reasons why editing as we draft might work for some people.

Every one of those reasons is valid—and I should know. They’ve all applied to me before. *smile*

Want to break a writing rule? How can we know if it will it be easy or hard? Click To TweetI’ve always started a drafting session by rereading what I wrote the previous session, as that helps remind me not only of where I left off, but also of my character’s voice and point of view. While I do that reread, I figure it’d be stupid to not fill in where I missed a word (that I might not find later) or to leave myself a note of what to do later (when it’d be just as fast to fix the issue immediately).

As a multi-published author, obviously breaking this advice “rule” hasn’t caused a problem with me finishing drafts. Also just as obviously, this sort of process is never going to be apparent to readers. Therefore, I feel zero guilt for ignoring the advice. *grin*

Other Examples: Guidelines vs. Preferences

As I’ve written about many times before, advice doesn’t always apply to us or our story or our writing. Here are a few other posts with information about when writing advice is a guideline or just an easily ignored preference:

Breaking Guidelines:

Breaking Preferences:

Many Guidelines Are Also Writing Styles

To add even more confusion to the debate, much of the advice that is a guideline—in that readers will see the choice to follow or break it—is also about our writing style. These guidelines often change over the years as reader expectations shift with current trends, and our writing style might not match those trends.

For example, much advice we come across assumes that we want to write in deep point of view…because that’s what most readers currently prefer—or expect. However, there’s nothing technically wrong with writing in a shallower point of view or in omniscient. It’s just less common and might be seen as old-fashioned or less engaging, but if that’s what works for our story or writing style, that’s what works for us.

If most writing advice is subjective, does that mean we can ignore it? Click To TweetSimilarly, we’ve all seen advice focusing on active voice vs. passive voice. Or on showing vs. telling.

But passive voice is still grammatically correct, and it’s just the expectations of modern writing that create the “risk” of choosing to use it. And as I’ve written about before, yes, it’s okay to tell, no, showing isn’t “better,” and we just have to learn when it’s best to use each—which is a subjective measure that depends on our writing style.

That said, if we choose to go against the trend, we should do so consciously. Like what I mentioned above, it’s okay to break the guidelines if we have a reason and accept the risk of not meeting readers’ expectations.

Much Advice Is Subjective

In fact, most of the advice we come across—whether as rules, guidelines, or preferences—is subjective. Much of writing (and publishing/marketing) is about finding a balance that works for us, our processes, our goals, our needs, our stories, our genres, our characters, our skills, etc.

For example, we might have seen advice that we need to engage readers through emotion, but no one can tell us the right balance of emotion to include in our story. The “right” balance depends on our writing and our story: the genre, the point of view, the character, the premise, whether it’s plot-driven or character-driven, etc.

Even of the style of advice can influence how helpful it is to us. Some styles of advice will resonate with us more than others.

All advice has context, the kernel of good advice that it grew from, but as advice spreads and generalizes, it tends to lose that context and all nuance. So the more generalized advice is, the less likely it is to apply to us. Either way, the important thing to remember is to follow the advice that helps us and ignore the rest. *smile*

Do the different categories of advice—rules/guidelines vs. preferences—make sense? Do you understand what types of advice falls into each category? Do you agree or disagree with the differences and how to categorize and treat each type of advice? Can you think of other examples for each category? Can you think of other guidelines that are really about writing style?

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Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

I think there are only two things I’ve “pushed”. One is to write every day – but I only tell beginning writers that so they build the habit (and don’t put it off “because”). Once they’ve gotten into the habit, they know better when they can skip a day (or more) without having a struggle to get back to it. The second is that one should try different methods depending on the story and especially if they find themselves struggling – and then mold those methods to their own preferences.

But as a “pantser” who doesn’t write drafts and edits as she goes (and have been told sooooo often that I’m doing it “all wrong”), I’ve gotten so I hesitate even offering these suggestions to others!

Traci Kenworth

Great advice! I try when I do a writing post to like you advise, not make it a”This is the way to do this.” Every writer has their own set of “Rules.” Although, in the case of grammar better to follow Strunk and White.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Thanks!

Julie Glover

Thanks so much for the shout-out! You have so many great points and resources here, it’s a treasure trove for writers.

Sieran

Jami, about changing story trends, there was one particular example that struck me recently. I was reading the Wikipedia entry for Tangled, the recent Disney movie for Rapunzel. According to the wiki article, the producers wanted to have a strong, independent female character, who will be proactive and go for what she wants. She doesn’t just sit there and wait for someone to help her. In contrast, the original Rapunzel in the Grimm fairy tales, was much more passive. That kind of passivity would not appeal to the modern audience. I found that striking because I took for granted that MCs ought to be proactive, agentic, etc. They should not be passively waiting to be saved, and female characters definitely should not be “damsels in distress” relying on a man to save them. (Also assuming heteronormativity here. 🙁 ) But yeah, I think in the 21st century, the audience might have increased their expectations to have more active, empowered protagonists, especially if the protagonist is female. For the most part, I think this is an improvement. However, sometimes audience expectations can lead to some bad extremes. Yes, we want to see women who are tough, strong, independent. But does that mean we should look down on female characters who are not that strong or independent? Women are people, after all. Not everybody (of any gender) are that self-reliant and tough. We may go to the opposite extreme and start shaming girls (and female fictional characters) who don’t conform to our…  — Read More »

Dawn

I run into this so much. I’m wracking my brain with my first chapter. One person says I need to set the scene so I fix it and another person says the beginning is too slow. They are probably both right and I need to learn how to combine the two, but some of it could simply be conflicting preferences.

I’m beta reading the work of a new writer and I find his writing style very different but still entertaining. Someone somewhere, though, has convinced him to change it from first person to third person, to add more imagery, to add deeper emotion, and other things which could be legitimate critiques. But his story is just fine the way it is. It’s not the kind of story that needs more imagery and emotion. I’m so worried he’s going to ruin his story because of some undoubtedly well-intentioned advice that is more about their personal preference.

I’m going to share this post with him. I’m also going take some of your advice and try to analyze how much of their critique has a kernel of truth and how much is preference.

Debby Hanoka
Debby Hanoka

This is a great post. I have bookmarked it for future reference.

The way my writer’s mind works is to edit as I go. I find that my writing is a better quality, and I am more satisfied with my own work, when I do. But what works for may not necessarily work for someone else.

Also, consider that Somerset Maugham once said that there are only two real rules of writing, but no one told the writers what they were (paraphrased from memory). I think I have figured them out: 1/ Do what works for you; and 2/ Repeat ad infinitum.

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