Writing Tips: When to Break the Rules

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December 1, 2021

Whether you’re writing your next great novel or warming up with a bit of fun flash fiction, it can be tempting to fall into the trap of following all the rules. Yes, it’s true that the rules are there for a reason. But that doesn’t mean that it’s always a good reason. And, sometimes, following the rules of writing can get in the way of crafting an excellent and memorable story.

Throwing out the rules was a habit I picked up as a magazine editor. I worked with and edited the work from dozens of different writers, each with their unique priorities, voices, and points of view. Aside from ensuring that each piece followed the magazine’s deliberately loose and casual style guide, my primary goal as editor was to help the author sound their best without erasing the qualities that made their work unique. Dealing with so many different writing styles forced me to let go of many time-honored writing rules because they didn’t help me meet that goal.

I’ve taken that penchant for rule-breaking into my own creative writing. And, if you’re here looking for tips on how to improve your writing, I’ll tell you to start by throwing out the rule book.

Rule: Show, don’t tell.

In general, the idea of show don’t tell is to communicate the story, setting, and characters through action instead of exposition. It’s meant to encourage you to describe how your character is feeling through their actions and to describe the environment through the way your character relates to it. The benefit of writing this way is that it can lead your audience to feel more immersed in your work.

Except when it doesn’t. Because, and let’s be honest here, showing doesn’t always work. Relating the character to their environment through a childhood memory or the sound their shoes make when they hit the floor only works when those things are essential. Go ahead and mention the dull, yellow walls in a throwaway line to give the reader a piece of the room to hold onto, then get to the good stuff.

Think about every time you’ve looked up a recipe online only to wade through a ten-paragraph essay on the writer’s childhood experiences helping their grandparent in the kitchen. All that text is there to make their blog post more searchable and to have more copy space to include ads. You don’t need to pad your work. If it works better to be sparse and sparing, do that.

Rule: The first line is what sells your work.

An editor once told me that the first line hooks your reader and sells your story. I couldn’t disagree more. The blurb sells your story. The cover sells your story. The first page sells your story. A great opening line is just that: a great line. But, as a reader, it takes more than one line to discover if a story is worth reading or not.

Think about the often-repeated first line from Melville’s Moby Dick. I don’t need to quote it. It’s not a particularly interesting or compelling first line. It doesn’t hook me in any way or tell me anything about the story other than the narrator’s name. But it only became ubiquitous because so many people read the story. No one read that line and said, “Oh, I have to read the rest.” I read it because my high school lit teacher assigned it to me.

So, don’t sweat your first line all that much. If you’ve got a great one, great. If not, remember that your first paragraph is more important. Or your first page. Or even your first chapter. But if you haven’t hooked the reader by then, it’s probably a lost cause.

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Rule: Kill your adjectives.

Your use of adjectives comes down to taste. I like my writing to be fast, witty, and crisp. I use adjectives sparingly, preferring to choose better nouns that don’t require descriptive modifiers. But I also like my writing to be accessible. Big and large are so common that they have almost no specific meaning. My editor would rather I use words like immense, enormous, or colossal. But those mean different things than large. As in, a colossal room is bigger than a large room. If it’s a quantity of something so immense that it blankets the landscape to the far horizon, I’ll write that. Sorry, distant horizon. But, sometimes, my character or narrator doesn’t have time to think of a comparative or descriptive phrase. They see someone carrying a lot of things and describe it as a large amount. My editor gets mad, and my reader imagines a quantity greater than a small amount and moves on. Yes, it’s more precise to describe someone carrying a stack of twelve hats rather than a tall stack of hats. But the exact number of hats isn’t necessarily important enough for the character who sees them to count them. Maybe they think, “Wow, that’s a large number of hats,” and leave it there.

Some writers are tempted to use flowery, lurid prose in their descriptive writing. Sometimes this is bad because it doesn’t add anything to your story. But sometimes, the showiness is the point of the story. Maybe you like it. And you should be writing for yourself. Your pace doesn’t have to be clipped and precise. Your sentences can meander. You can take the scenic route to get to your point. Just say what you mean.

Rule: Any grammar rule.

Grammar rules are guidelines. They should lead you toward the best way to make your point. But they’re not universal. They can vary. You can use commas, dashes, or periods to simulate pauses or breakpoints when they would otherwise not be required. You can use the wrong verb tense or even the wrong verb when its meaning is still understood. Especially in dialogue. Nothing breaks immersion for me more than a character whose grammar is always exact and precise. People just don’t talk that way.

That last sentence is a great example. Just is imprecise and unnecessary. Speak would be the proper verb to use instead of talk, and I should have written: “in that way.” But you get my meaning even though I made all those grammar errors. Unless your narrator and all of our characters attended a 19th century, upper class, British finishing school, they probably wouldn’t use perfect grammar every time they speak either.

These are but a few examples. I could make a case against nearly any writing rule, with the possible exception of active language being better than passive language. Or not. You should write in whatever way best suits your work. If you’re writing for mass-market popularity, you should follow whichever rules will help your work achieve that. Just don’t be afraid to throw out the rules that don’t apply.