The Only Rule That Matters

Student Studying in Library

There is a ton of advice for the aspiring writer. You used to have to take a class or buy a copy of Writers Digest to be talked down to, but now that we have an internet, it’s everywhere. And lots of it is in the form of lists of “rules for writers” or “nine things that make agents vomit” or something similar. Much of it directs us to show and not tell, to avoid prologues, adverbs, description, speech tags, starting with a battle, starting with a character description or pretty much not being Ernest Hemingway or J D Salinger.

My advice to writer is to ignore all the advice.

Many if not most of these “rules” are current fashion. Writing changes over time. You don’t read much in the style of Herman Melville or Charlotte Bronte today.

For any rule, you can find a best selling, critically acclaimed book that breaks it.

Now, before I get way off on a tear here and start swinging chairs, I would be remiss not to point out that many if these “rules” exist for a reason, and it’s not a bad idea to look at them with an open mind, and to try to understand the pitfalls that they try to steer you away from. Plenty of these rules are put out by critics who have seen a lot of bad writing, and they honestly want to help you not be the next bad writer, so they make a list of things that annoy them and put them out as “ten things to avoid” listicles.

My own rule is never repeat the word “listicle.”

But, as Captain Barbosa taught us, every “rule” is really just a guideline. Use speech tags sparingly, when they will have a real effect. Be judicious with adverbs. Don’t muddy things with run on sentences when the pace calls for short ones.

But never follow a rule off a cliff.

Sometimes, a line of dialogue should be spat and not said.

What matters is that you keep the reader engaged. No page is a failure that makes a reader turn it to see what happens next.

The only rule that matters is to write a good story.

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