Skip to main content

7 Writing Rules You Can Ignore

When I say you can ignore these rules, I don’t mean that you should. These “truisms” floating around about writing are useful to think about, especially when you’re starting out, and they can point you to weaknesses in your work. In the end, though, you have to trust your own process. Here are seven “writing rules” I (sometimes) ignore.

julia-vanishes-book-cover
catherine-egan-author-writer

Column by Catherine Egan, author of JULIA VANISHES (June 2016,
Knopf). Catherine grew up in Vancouver, Canada, and has lived on a
volcanic island in Japan (which erupted during her time there and sent
her hurtling straight into the arms of her now-husband), in Tokyo, Kyoto,
Beijing, an oil rig in the middle of China’s Bohai Bay, New Jersey, and
now Connecticut, where she write books and defends the Eastern seaboard
from invading dragon hordes alongside her intrepid warrior-children.
Follow her on Twitter

1. Write every day.

Actually, I do write almost every day, because I like to and it works with my schedule. But you shouldn’t feel bad if you can’t or don’t want to. You do have to put in the hours to write a book, but those hours will still add up if they are all on Saturdays. Keep writing, and eventually you’ll finish something. Some writers need regularity to stay in a groove with a project. Others find they are more productive if they step away from the work frequently. This is one of those rules that shouldn’t be taken seriously at all. Do what works for you.

2. Kill your darlings.

This is basically smart advice that shouldn’t be adopted too sweepingly. It really depends on the darlings, doesn’t it? The phrase originates with Faulkner, but it is often attributed to Stephen King, who says in On Writing: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” The idea is that you need to cut all those phrases and scenes you’re so in love with that don’t serve a real purpose in your book. This is often true, but how do you know which darlings to kill? You have to listen to critiques, of course, and you have to learn to step back a little from your own work. Finally, you have to trust your judgment. You don’t want to go around slaughtering darlings willy-nilly or you might end up cutting the heart right out of your book.

3. Show, don’t tell.

This is also good advice most of the time, but not all of the time. If you’re explaining things in big blocks of text that can be revealed more artfully with dialogue or an action scene, “show, don’t tell” is a good rule of thumb. However, sometimes a neat bit of telling gets the job done just fine.

4. Take out all the adverbs.

What’s with this “all”? As with killing your darlings, cutting adverbs should be done with care, not bloodthirsty zeal. It’s tremendously satisfying to charge into a manuscript, and delete, delete, delete. But you can end up doing damage if you go too far. Adverbs aren’t bad. Overusing adverbs is bad.

Image placeholder title

Are you a subscriber to Writer's Digest magazine
yet? If not, get a discounted one-year subscription here.

5. Don’t read reviews.

This is something writers tell each other. And yes, if you get a sinking feeling in your stomach when somebody trashes your book, or worse, if the reviews make you start questioning yourself and overthinking your work-in-progress, then this is very good advice: don’t read reviews! But reviews can also be fascinating, entertaining, even useful. It’s interesting to see what has resonated (and what hasn’t) with readers. Just know thyself and proceed accordingly.

6. Write what you know.

I’ve never been interested in writing about anything remotely familiar to me, which is probably how I wound up writing fantasy. Empathy and imagination can take us into wonderful unknowns. You don’t have to stick to your lived experiences, but “write what you know” is still worth thinking about. Your writing needs an authenticity that it can’t possibly have if you write carelessly about what you don’t know. If you are writing historical fiction, for example, do your research. If you are writing about characters from a marginalized group you don’t belong to, follow the #ownvoices hashtag on Twitter as a starting point, because writing what you don’t know can also be damaging.

7. Know your audience.

Maybe that is good advice, but I have no idea how to follow it. As a reader, I’m used to going out into the sea of books and finding the ones that are right for me. I’ve been doing it all my life. Every now and then I catch a stinker, but in general, I am excellent at choosing books. However, I don’t know how to think about an audience when I’m writing. Who wants to read this book? I don’t know! Maybe people who like fantasy and are over the age of twelve or thirteen? Maybe other people? Maybe you? I write the book I want to write and then send it out into that sea of books hoping it will find its readers and that its readers will find it.

--------------------

Check Out These Great Upcoming Writers' Conferences:

Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 3.39.23 PM

Your new complete and updated instructional guide
to finding an agent is finally here: The 2015 book
GET A LITERARY AGENT shares advice from more 
than 110 literary agents who share advice on querying, 
craft, the submission process, researching agents, and
much more. Filled with all the advice you'll ever need to
find an agent, this resource makes a great partner book to
the agent database, Guide to Literary Agents.

Other writing/publishing articles and links for you:

Plot Twist Story Prompts: The Ultimatum

Plot Twist Story Prompts: The Ultimatum

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, have a character give or face an ultimatum.

6 Things Every Writer Should Know About Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Company

6 Things Every Writer Should Know About Sylvia Beach and Shakespeare and Company

Sylvia Beach was friend to many writers who wrote what we consider classics today. Here, author Kerri Maher shares six things everyone should know about her and Shakespeare and Company.

How Writers Can Apply Business Tools to Their Writing

How Writers Can Apply Business Tools to Their Writing

Author Katherine Quevedo takes an analytical look at the creative process in hopes to help other writers find writing success.

Nick Petrie: On Following the Most Compelling Story

Nick Petrie: On Following the Most Compelling Story

Award-winning author Nick Petrie discusses how he listened to the story that wanted to be told in his new Peter Ash thriller novel, The Runaway.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 596

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a punishment poem.

Jacquelyn Mitchard: On Forgiveness in Fiction

Jacquelyn Mitchard: On Forgiveness in Fiction

Award-winning novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard discusses the chance meeting that led to her new novel, The Good Son.

Sea Bound

Sea Bound

Every writer needs a little inspiration once in a while. For today's prompt, write about someone connected to the sea.

writersMarket_wd-ad_1000x300 (1)

Get Published With the Latest Market Books Editions

Get published and find more success with your writing by using the latest editions of the Market Books, including Writer's Market, Poet's Market, Guide to Literary Agents, and more!

Michigan Quarterly Review: Market Spotlight

Michigan Quarterly Review: Market Spotlight

For this week's market spotlight, we look at Michigan Quarterly Review, the flagship literary journal of the University of Michigan.