Five Rules About Writing I (Sorta) Disagree With

The late novelist Somerset Maugham famously said: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” And yet the pundits (including me, sometimes) continually offer up the “rules” to good writing. Some of these rules are valid–such as “show, don’t tell;” though even that rule is flexible. Telling is sometimes the best way to move the story along.

But there are other rules that I think are dubious at best and, when understood properly, can be broken. Let’s consider five of them.

1. “Write what you know.” How many times have we heard this one? Of course, writing what we know can be powerful, but so can writing what we don’t know. Many of us, in fact, write in order to find out things we don’t know. Not just factual things, but experiential things. I have never experienced the loss of a spouse through death (thank you, Lord), but that won’t keep me from imagining what it feels like as I write my novel. Here’s a great exercise in writing what you don’t know: Invent a character entirely your opposite and, by using your imagination, make yourself understand what motivates this person. What outlandish thing would this character do that you would never do? Can you get inside that person’s skin and experience their motivation for this action?

If Eudora Welty, one of my favorite writers, wrote only what she knew, she would not have won the Pulitzer Prize. As she once noted, “I am a writer who came from a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.” So all writers who have lived sheltered lives, don’t despair! Turn within and imagine what you don’t know.

2. “Go through your manuscript and take out all the adverbs.” Have you heard that one? I suppose no one would really suggest removing all the adverbs from a manuscript, but the impression one gets is that adverbs are weak, inferior. Sure, they can be….sometimes. But adverbs have a purpose. I would rewrite this rule as “use adverbs to their best advantage.”

3. “Write even if you know you’ll never be published.” I may be in the minority, but I hate this advice. Apparently the idea is that a writer writes because he has to (which I agree with) and that writing is somehow its own reward (which I disagree with). I don’t know about you, but I’m writing to be published. I’m glad I don’t know whether or not I will have more books published in the future because if I knew my writing would never see the light of day, I’d probably be tempted to quit. I write to be read by others. For me, writing for the express purpose of being published is a great incentive to be a better writer. To write for oneself is to write for far too small an audience.

4. George Orwell took one “rule” to the extreme when he issued the decree “Never use the passive [voice] where you can use the active [voice].” Yes, the active voice is usually better, but this is a rule like “show, don’t tell” that can be broken in certain circumstances. Orwell was wrong to use the word “never.” The trick is knowing when the passive voice is the best choice. And to make that call, I rely on one rule that I truly do adhere to—-and that’s Isaac Asimov’s rule “Either it sounds right or it doesn’t sound right.” Sometimes the passive voice wins out. It just sounds better than the active voice. Employing Asimov’s rule comes from having a good “ear” for the story in question. I’d say developing your inner ear is one of the most crucial lessons aspiring writers must learn. As I edit manuscripts for publication, many of the changes I make are in accordance with the Asimov rule. Sometimes I wonder why the writer didn’t “hear” the more excellent way of casting a particular sentence.

5. The final “rule” has to do with submitting your manuscript. There are apparently many do’s and don’ts involved with having your manuscript read by an editor or an agent. Mostly they’re right…but as I added the word “sorta” to the title of this blog, I was deliberately qualifying some of my disagreement with the rules. This rule usually says that your manuscript must look absolutely spotless and “professional” and be submitted by an agent or through some other “gatekeeper.” And while that’s certainly a good recommendation, let’s be honest and acknowledge that the most professional looking submission-—or agented submission—-won’t save a crummy manuscript. If the writing is mediocre or downright bad, I don’t give a hoot how professional it looks or which agent sent it to me. On the other hand, if your manuscript comes in over the transom (again, a breaking of one of the “rules” of submission) and has a few typos and a smudge on the first page…but is an excellent story, I’m going to sit up and take notice. Other editors and agents may disagree and turn up their noses at the less than perfectly submitted manuscript, but that’s okay. Truthfully, I have found a few gems among the unwashed and unscrubbed submissions that have come my way. Please note: this is NOT an invitation to submit shoddy looking manuscripts in an unprofessional manner. Do a good job of presentation. Just know that good writing trumps all else. I’ve written about ten published books now and my very first book was published because I bent a rule of submission. Any good editor worth their salt would recommend against what I did….but it worked for me. Just don’t be an obnoxious rule bender. 

Your take-away from this is that when you hear about certain “rules” of good writing, do take them to heart….but always ask yourself “under what circumstances might this rule not apply?” Or “is there a way to gently bend this rule to accomplish my goal?”

Next time I’ll blog about the few rules of writing that I do agree with. You already know one of them: Isaac Asimov’s first rule of writing. That’s a keeper!

7 replies
  1. Michele Huey says:

    Another one: Never end a sentence (or title) with a preposition. 😉 I agree with Asimov: Either it sounds right or it doesn’t. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Scoti Springfield Domeij says:

    Adverbs put more or less emphasis on the word that they modify. In my writing critique groups, I’ve noticed that writers tend to overuse adverbs. And I’ve observed that empty adverbs litter beginning writers’ writings. I challenge myself and others to up our writing skills and replace adverbs that tell with descriptive verbs. For example, what do you know about this man?

    Adverb: He walked angrily/quickly/quietly/ slowly/nervously/unsteadily down the hall.

    Descriptive verb: He stomped/stormed/tiptoed/crept/paced/staggered down the hall.

    Delete empty adverbs: Extremely, definitely, truly, very, really, only, so, finally, suddenly, already, pretty nice, so, kind of, totally, actually, seems, probably, could have, hopefully, just, perfect, viciously, usually

  3. Richard Mabry says:

    Nick, How do you ever plan to make it in such a strait-laced, rule-bound profession if you keep introducing common sense? Seriously, thanks for bringing some light to a subject that primarily generates heat.

  4. Kathy Bailey says:

    This is good, Nick. (Still not getting your automatic updates, what up with that?)
    Write what you know: Not necessarily. But if you’re going into uncharted territory, as I am with my Oregon Trail piece, do your research.
    Adverbs: Only when absolutely necessary. Remember Tom Swifties.
    Write even if you know you’ll never be published: No. Write to BE published, but don’t compromise yourself for any market.
    Never use the passive voice: Like adverbs, only when absolutely necessary. If you develop an ear, you will know.
    Presentation: 200 percent, but make sure you have something to present.
    I’m late to the party again because I don’t check your site every day (wish I had the automatic update), but take these for what they are worth.

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