So a couple weeks ago now a friend of mine made an observation on Twitter:
And that, combined with some other recent twitter discourse, makes me want to repeat my response to Danielle a bit louder, and a bit longer.
The thing is, writing advice isn’t one size fits all.
Except it’s like math: they start of telling you that you can’t subtract a bigger number from a smaller number. You just can’t. If you’re kid who pipes up about negative numbers, they shush you until the curriculum says that it’s information you’re allowed to receive. “Don’t confuse the other kids!” (That may have been the last time in my life I was actually ahead of the other kids concerning mathematical knowledge.)
Here’s another elementary school memory that resonates: in second grade we had to write storybooks with a partner. Stephanie and I wrote about a bunny who went on an adventure to a strange land and then came home and … I don’t remember exactly what, but it was very Hero’s Journey of the little rabbit. We even included dialogue to prove we’d learned all the punctuation rules.
But I remember Mrs. Knitz reading it and telling us that we couldn’t start a sentence with a conjunction. (In this case it was “and.”) So we had to erase our carefully-penciled text and cover up the weird gap it left.
It goes beyond learning the rules so you can break them.
More recently – I guess this post is a bunch of anecdotes – I had someone tell me that you have to learn the rules before you can break them because I said I don’t know the beats of Save the Cat. The internet’s a weird place, and you don’t always know who you’re talking to. I’m sure they meant it for the best. But I had to point out that some of us learned the rules before the original Save the Cat was published in 2005.
And yes, it’s important to know the expectations of the genre you’re writing. That’s really the whole point of a genre: it tells audiences what they can expect. It helps us pick the thing we want to engage with next. Some days you’re in the mood for horror, and others you just want a romantic comedy. The third-act misunderstanding (and maybe a breakup) is absolutely expected and necessary, but so is that happily ever after (or at least a happily-for-now).
Can you mess with generic formats? Yes, but. That’s getting complicated beyond what I’m trying to say here. Hold on to your knowledge of negative numbers until the rest of the class is ready to learn.
The point I’m trying to make is that there are all sorts of rules about how to write.
You get grammar and punctuation and formatting rules. You get genre- and format-specific rules. If you take a class, you get instructor-specific rules. (I had one in college who was obsessed with food. Your characters had to eat something, and it was always meaningful.) Pick up a book on writing and get a few more rules.
So now we’re circling back to Danielle’s lament that a very common writing rule doesn’t work for her. And my response:
I think I’ve generally seen it as “Don’t edit while you write … if it’s going to bog you down and stop you from making progress.” Or maybe I’ve just always added the second bit in myself?
Danielle agreed that yes, that’s the context, but it’s also the quiet bit. That’s the kid trying to tell the teacher that yes, you can subtract a bigger number from a smaller number, because negative numbers are a thing! They exist!
Writing advice is some big blanket statement that someone (presumably with authority) makes to some sort of audience. If you’re in a classroom, the speaker has a better chance of knowing that audience, but even then you don’t know everything about everyone. You don’t know where someone is in their writing journey or how many years they’ve spent honing their craft, or how, with which books or which trends, so really it’s just easier to make big proclamations.
And miss the nuance of the quiet part.
Writer, know thyself.
Yes, you should know the rules and expectations. You’re entering into a conversation as a writer and not just existing in some sort of void. (That might be my They Say, I Say college composition syllabus coming through, considering I taught it for years.) You do need to know how you fit and what various people are going to expect.
The point of writing is the writing. And the reason so many of us talk about writing is because we’re not going to be relevant to everyone. And even then we’re not going to be relevant to someone on every project. Writing, and writers, continually evolve as they read and write and engage and revise and daydream and scrap and edit and polish.
So: you don’t have to take every piece of writing advice someone hands you. If you think it’s going to work (for you), then absolutely put it in your pocket. If you’re skeptical, you might stick it in a drawer of your desk to pull out when everything else seems to have stalled.
Or you can chuck it in the circular file if, instead of helping you get words on the page, it’s going to stop you completely.
In the interest of those of you who already know about negative numbers: yes, this changes when you’re working with an editor or an agent who suggests changes or a publishing house that has its own style rules. There are always exceptions. But, like my math teachers, you have to start somewhere.
What “writing rule” can you never seem to follow? Do you even try anymore, or is it something you’ve decided you don’t actually need?
4 thoughts on “About all those writing rules that everyone should follow …”
Holy hell, it seemed like every semester my students were obsessed with the most petty rules, like, “You can’t use contractions.” Okay, why? Because someone said so. As I twisted and turned and fought to teach them rhetoric, they constantly relied on silly little “do not start with a conjunction”-type of rules. I think it would be wise to have students enroll in composition and speech class at the same time, or maybe even as a tandem. If you listen to the most compelling speeches, they have elements that “break the rules” that actually make the message more compelling. Like an incomplete sentence.
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We’ve all been traumatized by early teachers. And only some of us have moved past it. 😉
I think it’s part of what makes writing hard, though: what rules??? If you’re used to the hard and fast, easy to follow things, then writing is just … confusing. Or a mess. And it’s such a balance between “follow the rules” and “okay nobody understood that the way you wanted them too.” Writing’s hard.
That’s true. I do forget that there is a disconnect between what I meant and what I said/wrote. I’m learning more about it since my husband was diagnosed with ADHD last year. While medication helps, sometimes it frees up his brain to say things that cause a huge disconnect and even, sometimes, an argument.
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Writing has a huge gap between the author putting it down and the audience encountering it, so I think it can be harder than speaking to someone. At least in real time you get cues. When you’re writing (or recording) something, there’s a lot better chance of things going wrong in the process. 😅 Stephen King has some good thoughts on that, actually. But it’s just one more uncertainty that means maybe we feel better if we can Follow The Rules.
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