More rules you can occasionally break


Last week I talked about how you don’t have to write every day, and before that, how you can write slow if you want. Let’s rebel against some more rules! (Occasionally.)

Eugh… “Rules.” Just the word makes me think of similarly off-putting things, like peas or gym class or t-shirt armpits yellowed by old sweat stains. I prefer the more pleasing word “guidelines.” Ahh, that’s better – like a cheerful garden path leading you towards better writing. Or that wise old word “advice,” with its wizard beard and smell of vintage paper. And let’s not forget that perky lil word, “tips!”

Rules are smart, but no rule/guideline/advice/tip is an ironclad absolute.

Here’s an example of a law I break every damn day: Don’t edit as you go.

I get why this helps people who get so caught up in editing they never move on. They agonize over every word until it’s perfect. Going back over their own work makes them immediately throw up their hands and give up. I’ve struggled with this before, so I understand.

I’m now in a place where I enjoy reading back over my work, and editing gives me a satisfying feeling of “ahh, there.” Sometimes a big issue pops up and I get antsy until I resolve it. Even as I write, I’ll pause to re-think, re-word. Not doing that makes me feel all kinds of irk, so editing as I go actually helps my productivity. I don’t do this with every sentence, and I push myself to carry on when a scene’s not going well (with notes to work on later). That’s a valuable practice. But other times I quite enjoy the tweaking. I think it comes down to two questions: Is your editing hindering you? Do you like it? If the answers are No and then Yes, by all means, edit away.

Now, let’s get away from methods and more into mechanics.


Here’s a VERY GOOD law that still needs breaking on occasion: Show, don’t tell. (Related: the Avoid Exposition law.)

Why this is important 99% of the time: Showing offers the reader the up-close experience, the chance to LIVE that information via the narrative. Being told is not as convincing as seeing it with our own eyes.

Buuuuuuuuut, what happens when certain info is necessary, but showing it would require wedging in some drawn-out, completely transparent, “hey side character, why don’t you inform me about such-and-such!” kind of scene? In cases like this, the showing actually becomes a hindrance. It flows better if you just give the exposition quickly and move on.

Here’s another one I have purposely broken: Don’t use passive voice.

Why this is important 99% of the time: Active voice gives the prose a sense of muscularity, and the effort to un-pacify the sentence forces you to create a more interesting one. For example, I could say, “It was cold.” The only way to active that up is to give it more: “I rubbed my arms against the chill,” or “I felt the cold even through my heavy coat.”

But on occasion I deliberately choose the passive voice. (GASP! Blasphemy!) Perhaps I want to make a declarative statement—It IS this! I AM that! Maybe I’m going for minimal, in which case “It was cold” trumps those other options. I might want to end on a certain impactful word, and arranging that requires the passive. Or maybe it’s just plain smoother.

books21Those are just a few examples. You might be wondering: why am I bothering to talk about all this stuff when MOST of the time such rules make sense? Because rigid rules means rigid writing. You need to be able to look past the rule to what its purpose is, then decide if that fits your goal.

One rule that I never, ever break, though? The semi-colon. COMPLETE CLAUSE AFTER YOUR SEMI-COLONS, FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND GRAMMATICAL! 😛

Tell me, what rules have you broken on purpose?


6 thoughts on “More rules you can occasionally break

  1. I broke Hemingway’s law of “write drunk, edit sober” last week but that’s only because I’m a fellow edit-as-you-go kind of a guy. Not that you are a guy of course.

    I probably break other rules all the time – mostly because I have no clue what most of this whole “grammar” thing is on about. Mine is more about blissful ignorance than design. This post has been an education for me but I suspect I will have an irrational fear of semi-colons from this day forward.

    ; aaaagggghhhh…what happens now…? See.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Here’s an example of a law I break every damn day: Don’t edit as you go.”

    Understanding why a rule is a rule helps us discover when breaking the rule works for us. I modified this rule to read, “Don’t edit as you go – unless the edit moves you forward or down a better path” Stopping to edit trips us up by breaking our chain of thought. It can pop the creative bubble that we work in – but sometimes, an different spin on a word or a sentence can put us on a better footing or send us off in a new direction.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Great way to look at it! Yeah, sometimes editing is a matter of spinning something around which can launch us forward – it’s a creative act itself. There are different kinds of editing that are best done at different times. But I’ve also heard people say you shouldn’t read back over the book at any time until it’s done, which I just cannot do. I’ll whip open a scene from chapter 2 or whatever, and fiddle around or even rewrite it if it’s needed. If something’s really bothering me, it sets my mind at ease to just resolve it. Plus I just plain enjoy fiddling.


      • Often doing something like correcting a misspelling or fixing a grammar error is surrendering to our compulsive nature, especially on the first draft. I try to avoid it, however, and there is always a however, sometimes when the pace begins to flag and unfinished paragraph starts to sag, fiddling with errors and fooling around with the prose is just the thing to keep us on task.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I do like to edit as I go, and still working hard on showing not telling and not using passive voice. Though for me, those are my flaws as a writer. But you know, I’ve always been a little bit of a rebel when it comes to things. These are great tips and advice! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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