The Rule(s) of Writing


These pages all started out blank.

“Kill your darlings.”

“Show, don’t tell.”

Write what you know.”

As a writer, it’s easy to believe that there are certain rules of writing that, if followed, will result in your success. Rules are comforting, in a way. They offer certainty.

The problem with this is that writing is not certain. We can see the end result, pick that apart, and see what works for us. We can fiddle and tinker.

Rules are a different matter.

If Orhran Pamuk had followed common rules of writing in Snow, he wouldn’t have spent the entire book telling you what is about to happen. Logically, if you’re trying to build interest and suspense in a novel, you don’t fill it with spoilers. Nevertheless, it works, and it works brilliantly.

In the same vein, Ray Bradbury’s Death is a Lonely Business still astounds me. It is a book dedicated to Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett and James Cain, giants of noir fiction, and it is a book that breaks every noir mystery rule. It’s a mystery with (almost) no mystery! A bumbling Ray Bradbury is our detective! On paper, who would possibly think that a book like that would work? Certainly I wouldn’t.

This, of course, is the best part about writing. When you get down to it, there really are no rules. Do you want to have a completely open ending, and no conclusion to anything? Do you want to write a story about an undead bunny? Do you want to write a tome that will stop a heavy door?

Write those things! The page is blank for a reason!

Many writers will also tell you not to use exclamation points. Personally, I love exclamation points. Ray Bradbury wrote with exclamation points all the time. He sprinkled them everywhere, and it completely fit into his style. This was a man whose hero was named Mr. Electrico; why wouldn’t he toss exclamation points everywhere? That was his point of view.

Elmore Leonard, on the other hand, never liked exclamation points. He also doesn’t like the word ‘asseverate,’ among other things. He has a different way of thinking than Bradbury. He doesn’t write like him.

Still, both were very successful, and wrote well. They simply have different ways of going about this process called writing.

Now, what’s really important for us as writers is not to follow pithy rules, but to understand what works and why. Even more important is understanding what we like and why. Remember, if you never want to put two words together creatively, it’s likely that you’ll never have to do so. If you want money or recognition, there are easier ways of getting both. Trust me.

Thus, writing should be fun. It won’t be fun all the time; there will be difficult periods to work through, but you should enjoy what you’re doing. Writing with rules, unnecessary rules at that, isn’t going to make writing more fun. It’s going to give you boundaries you can no longer cross, for no other reason than another writer said that was what you should be doing, another writer that doesn’t have your head.

The only rule that I can give you is to have fun with whatever you decide to do.

It’s the only rule worth following.


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