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.

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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.


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5 thoughts on “7 Writing Rules You Can Ignore

  1. JGuenther

    The “Death to Adverbs” meme may have run its course. It apparently originated from a quote by one source taken out of context. The intent was for people to use action verbs instead of trite verbs embellished with adverbs. In other words, don’t say, “Lothar walked quickly down the street.” Say, instead, “Lothar dashed down the street.” Some writers now get rid of all ‘ly’ words by replacing them with adverbials, which are the same thing but sound absolutely horrid: “Lothar walked down the street in a hasty manner.” EEK!!

  2. JohnMc888

    Ignore “only use said.” Other verbs allow you to set mood, tone, inner conflict, suspicion, etc. without having to write full sentences. … A recent study showed that readers find adjectives add to emotional engagement. On wite waht ou know: ‘m often told to write the many true stories, often startling, that I tell, some involving famous or historically significant people, many containing facts (directly from the person or from a person who knew the other person for a long time or from a family member) not known to the public, but I can’t. And I can’t write about myself or my very diverse and dramatic extended family. I might write some things down for a younger generation in the family but probably not. I’ll probably do a barebones sketch of about 50 people.

    I agree about ignoring “write what you know.” BUT on the other hand if “know” is used expansively – through imagination or culture, for instance, then “write what you know” is viable. The Latin playwright Terence (a very funny guy) put it this way: “Home sum, et nihil humani alienum a me puto.” “I am a human being, and I consider nothing human to be foreign to me.” I have all my life imagined life in other cultures, and have been asked by people in many of those cultures If I am from that culture. The answer in most cases would be no.

  3. Philosopher

    Not so much a ‘rule’ as a suggestion, but I think ‘people watching’ needs to be retired. It’s rude and makes the subject of the gaze uncomfortable. They probably stand out for reasons that the writer is only subconsciously aware of. I know voyers always say that they can do it without getting caught but that’s like drunk people saying that they can tolerate alcohol. The subject is probably aware but gets it so much that they are tired of dealing with it.


    The Dalai Lama once said one should learn the rules first so one can break them properly! I think the idea is to break the rules deliberately and for a reason, not accidentally.


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