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The Silliness of Some One-Size-Fits-All Writing Rules

Updated: Sep 12, 2020

Despite what so many experts and supposed experts want to tell you…

When it comes to effective creative writing – or effective writing in general – there are very, very few one-size-fits-all guidelines or rules to be found. If there are any at all.

This might seem rather shocking coming from someone who publishes “Writing Rules” every single week. Like the one down below:

Villainous tell-alls are almost always lame and lazy.
You know when you’re reading the part of a thriller where the hero and villain are finally facing off, and the villain pours out his whole entire evil plan or explains every background detail about why he’s doing all the horrible things he’s doing?
That’s usually a sign of bad writing, no matter how famous the author may be. Those kinds of details can be revealed much more expertly through other means, if they need to be revealed at all.

That’s pretty blunt, you might point out. Which pretty much makes me a hypocrite. Right?

Au contraire, mon ami. Au contraire.

Let me explain…

There’s a key word in that Writing Rule, and that would be the word “usually.” In other words, the majority of the time, yes. You don’t want to use long-winded, overly detailed villainous dialogues.

But there is wiggle room, especially for parodies or scenes intended to mock either the villain or protagonist in more dramatic fashion. Perhaps something along the lines of the bad guy going overboard to answer the good guy’s questions when he’s the one in position of power, only to end with:

“That’s what you were hoping for, right? Some neat, tidy explanation for why you’re about to die? You’re every bit as ridiculous as I thought you were.”

Far from being corny, that kind of expression can leave the reader feeling every bit as degraded or frustrated as the enemy intends the hero to be.

It’s exceptions like that one that make writing rules so far from universal.

In the same way, cliched heroes can actually work sometimes. Too much setting detail can be used effectively in select sections. And unrealistic dialogue – which should almost always be avoided – might be appropriate if a character isn’t actually what or who he says he is.

Or how about technical writing rules? Run-on sentences, incomplete sentences, improper preposition placement, split infinitives…

We’re taught so many useful rules back in grade school and then reminded of them repeatedly throughout middle and high school. And with good reason since, in most cases, they make writing clearer and more engaging.

But writers of all stripes, shapes and sizes need to be closely connected with their manuscripts every step of the way, continuously asking themselves questions like:

  • What message am I trying to convey?

  • What audience am I trying to reach?

  • What emotion am I pushing?

  • What is the purpose of that word? That sentence? That paragraph?

That not meant to sound daunting. It’s actually meant to inspire you toward true writing freedom: a place where you get to determine your own words with your own placement for your own purposes.

You can boil it down to this: Never take a writing rule at face value as the end-all be-all of your writing life. Consider them as they come along, yes, but also consider yourself, your manuscript and your readers.

Then act accordingly.

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