How to Break the Rules of Writing

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Here at Writer’s Digest (and despite the There Are No Rules moniker of this blog), we talk a lot about doing things by the book—from understanding grammatical and structural writing rules, to following submission guidelines, to otherwise conducting yourself like a pro. And that’s why we had so much fun putting together the latest edition of WD: “The Rule-Breaker’s Issue.” In it, you’ll find plenty of ways to put all that straightforward advice aside and instead challenge yourself to take smart risks that can pay off—for both your craft and your career.

How to Break the Rules for Writers

To celebrate the release of this new July/August Writer’s Digest (on newsstands right now!) I’ll share some of my favorite tips—and give away one free copy to a random commenter below.

3 Ways to Get Ahead by Breaking the Rules for Writers

1. Realize that great writing starts with an appetite for life. Ideas and real-life experience to inform your writing are everywhere—but the most compelling ones may not be out in the open, plain for anyone to see. So don’t be timid: Say yes to opportunities that come your way—even (especially) the strange ones. Sneak backstage. Do something that makes you nervous. Try stepping outside your comfort zone, and you’ll find that the benefits far outweigh the discomfort of your sweaty palms. This tip lies at the heart of Elizabeth Sims’ wonderful article “The Reluctant Risk-Taker’s Guide to Filling the Creative Well.” Here’s one of my favorite parts:

Eavesdrop. It’s illicit, it’s impolite, and it’s great fun. … I used to do a lot of writing at a particular Starbucks in my town. Once in a while I’d see a certain type of couple: a young man sitting drinking coffee with a much older woman. Their conversations were quiet and remarkably intense. And I saw this over and over, with a different young-guy-older-woman combo every time.

I started to wonder. And I started to purposefully, stealthily eavesdrop. I started to look at the bigger picture, and realized that the coffee shop happened to be across the way from an armed forces recruitment center—and these young men and … their mothers had just been there. They’d come out and seen the Starbucks and decided to come in and talk it over.

The faces I saw and the conversations I overheard there were too intimate to recount here, but they informed me as a writer.

Eavesdrop. Write it down. Repeat.

2. Don’t be afraid to twist your plot. Yes, they seem intimidating, but readers love them—and the process of crafting them is not as mysterious as it may seem. Start by thinking of plot twists in more defined terms, and understanding the elements that make them work so well. For a twist to be effective, it needs to be four things:

  • Unexpected
  • Inevitable (in retrospect, the only possible ending to that scene, act or story)
  • An escalation of what preceded it
  • A revelation that adds meaning to what has already occurred.

The idea of twisting your plot sounds more quantifiable already, doesn’t it? This tip comes from Steven James’ “Pulling the Rug Out,” his detailed guide to twisting your plot using seven simple keys. It’s one of my favorite craft pieces we’ve published in recent memory—in fact, I’ve never seen another one quite like it. Writers of mysteries, thrillers and suspense especially will not want to miss this issue for this single article alone.

3. Challenge yourself to try a new genre. This issue’s WD Interview subject, Adriana Trigiani, has succeeded in genres almost too numerous to name. She started out writing for TV (if you ever watched “The Cosby Show” or “A Different World,” you’ve enjoyed her work) then moved on to series novels (her Big Stone Gap books and Valentine trilogy are book club favorites), and has since written nonfiction, YA, and her latest, her most ambitious work yet: the sweeping epic novel The Shoemaker’s Wife, which spans multiple generations of Italian immigrants and is based on her grandparents’ love story—and which, by the way, has remained on The New York Times bestseller list since its April release. In our inspiring interview, she admits that her new book took her way outside her comfort zone (“When I gave the first few chapters to my editor, I was sick to my stomach,” she told WD. “I thought, Oh my God, is she going to think this is the worst thing she ever read?”) and encourages other writers to fearlessly push their writing in new directions. “Look at me,” she says. “I found something I love because I tried it. Don’t be afraid to shake it up!”

Giveaway: Win a Free Copy of The Rule-Breaker's Issue!

These are just three of many unconventional tips you’ll find in this issue. It also features a guide to rewriting the rules of marketing your own work (featuring a “Rule-Breaker’s Spotlight” Q&A with Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, Oprah’s newest book club pick), a fascinating piece on why you might actually be better off ignoring well-intended advice you’ve heard about writing conferences, and an insightful profile of House of Sand and Fog author Andrea Dubus III, whose approach to the craft is inspiring in its sincerity (“Even a day writing badly for me is 10 times better than a day where I don’t write at all,” he told WD).

Want to win a copy? Leave a comment below telling us which of the so-called "rules" for writers you’ve been looking for a good excuse to break (whether it's an implied rule, a commonly accepted one, or anything in between)—or just share any other reason at all that you’re excited about this issue. One commenter will be chosen at random to receive a free copy.

You can also preview and/or order the full July/August Writer’s Digest here, find it on your favorite local newsstand, or download the complete issue instantly.

Jessica Strawser
Editor, Writer’s Digest Magazine

Follow me on Twitter: @jessicastrawser
Like what you read from WD online? Subscribe today, so you’ll never miss an issue in print!

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