No Rules but One

If you’ve ever Googled “rules for writing” you’re familiar with the abundance of results that it returns, from Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules to all sorts of collections of different writers’ rules, to, of course, whole books on how to write well. Some of these rules are plain and simple, and useful (Take two pencils on a plane) and others are, shall we say, rather idiosyncratic and hardly applicable to anyone but their author (Don’t read bad literature because your writing will get bad, too). Essentially, however, all these rules — excluding the plain, simple, practical ones such as doing back exercises and finishing whatever you’ve started writing, tell you one and the same thing: tell a story.

This is in fact the only rule in writing we all need to observe as best we can. That’s what we’re in for, isn’t it? We write to tell stories. Whether you’ll litter your story with adverbs or you’ll only use the shortest sentences possible; whether you write it with a thesaurus in hand as you try to use original, less common words or just type whatever first comes into your head, the number-one-and-only rule of the game is to tell a story.

I can sense a certain incredulity in the air, so here’s the bad news: the rule doesn’t say every story is a good story. The rule says tell a story. It’s up to you how you tell it. If you’re a conscientious writer and if you write for love rather than fame and money (all the wrong reasons as noted by Stephen King) you’d do your best to make it good. That’s where all the little rules come into play.

Take adverbs, for example. These have never really been a problem for me probably because of the amount of adverb-scarce books I’d read before I ventured into writing. But recently I read a few books from a famous series that were tightly packed with adverbs, occasionally sounding ridiculous because they were adverbialised verbs that don’t exist in nature. That’s when I appreciated this rule of using adverbs as sparingly as possible. Honestly, it was ridiculous and ruined a lot of the fun I had reading the books.

Don’t read bad literature? Well, I disagree with that one. If I hadn’t read the above books I wouldn’t watch my own adverbs so closely. If I hadn’t read two quite poor romance novels last week I wouldn’t have appreciated the good one as fully as I did. Good and bad literature is like good and evil: you can’t appreciate the former without the latter. Bad literature is useful. It shows you some of the many ways a story can be ruined, so you’ll try harder when you tell your own.

There’s a piece of advice about reading your work aloud and I’ve heard it said both about non-fiction writing and fiction. I tried it once, I think, with an article I considered important. I don’t recall any palpable effect but that’s just me: I have rudimentary auditory memory, I’m afraid, so reading text aloud simply does not work as well for me as it would for someone with a better communication channel between their ears and their brain.

Ultimately, 99% of writing rules are subjective. They are the rules individual writers set themselves to keep going and do the best job they can with the story.

Dropping all metaphors and similes works for one but it won’t work for me because I’m greedy: I’ll use all tools at my disposal. It’s tough enough to make sure I use them properly, so why would I deprive myself of any?

Author X may have to love before he can be relentless but for me the two are not necessarily consequential. Also, I don’t see the relevance of this particular “rule” to anything. Yeah, there are those rules that sound more like bits of individual wisdom than writing rules.

The remaining 1% are the universal little helpers we all need to appreciate more. They range from doing back exercises to imagining you have ten weeks to live so you pinpoint exactly what’s not right with the story you’re writing. And they work. They’re not exactly rules, though, I think we’ll all agree. They are more like guidelines designed to make your writing endeavours easier or at least less painful.

There is just one rule. Tell a story. And tell it as well as you can even if it involves starting sentences with a conjunction. Don’t worry about run-on sentences or the occasional adverb or even about telling to help showing. Take all these hard and fast rules with a pinch of salt and a quarter because they’re not that hard and fast. If I was ever in a position to dispense writing advice, I’d say this, the mean person that I am: Be coherent. On all levels, from style to grammar to pacing. Good luck.

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