Break These Rules

The written arts, like any art, demand the antithesis of formula. The writer must always consider his options, many of which lie beyond the fences. Break through the barriers, and what is original, brilliant, provocative, controversial, and/or authentic about you and your work has a chance to shine. While it’s important to know what masters of the art say you must or must not do, that doesn’t mean that the rules laid down may not be broken. These, for instance, could stand some bending:

1. Don’t take on taboo subjects.

Politics, religion, money, no-no sex—did I miss any? These are interesting, complicated subjects—why do you think we’ve built up taboos around them?—and an intelligent, artful treatment is a very good thing.

2. Just dash it out: write!

Actually, thinking time is writing time. And it saves time and agony. Of course you’re going to write until your fingers bleed, but think, plan, and test before you do.

3. Write with confidence.

Confidence is a fine quality and your reader expects that you know what you are doing.   As such, phrases like “I think” and “in my opinion” can water down your work and suggest insecurity, so use sparingly, as the rule implies. But too much confidence is just as bad and can make you look arrogant. “Write with a modicum of graciousness” is a better rule to follow. Or “Write with some compassion.” To achieve this, you have to set aside confidence and immerse yourself in the shaky, vulnerable territory of what it means to be human. Write with a respect for that, and your reader will mark you as someone to trust.

4. Eliminate adverbs.

Adverbs cover a lot of territory and tell us manner (how something is), place, time, and degree (“most”  or “some,”  for example).  Why would a writer want to eliminate all this necessary information? A more useful rule is “Use your adverbs well.” Don’t be redundant (“smiled happily”), or litter your text with intensifiers (“very,” “really,” “totally,”  “definitely”), or be sloppy or vague (“clearly, you don’t understand”), or modify attribution (“he spit angrily,” “she said wearily”).  These clunky examples are why the master, Stephen King, has quipped that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” An adverb used well, however, provides something essential.  In the phrase “more useful rule” the  word “more” is essential.   Without it, “useful rule” implies that the other rule is useless. So “more” changes the meaning, which in this application makes it essential. Stick to what’s essential, and you won’t go wrong.

5. A flashy title is everything.

Yes, an eye-popping, irresistible title brings your reader to the page. But if you don’t deliver what you promise, you’ve deceived him. And disappointed, he will run. Once, for example, in a blog by a female on the written arts, I stumbled on a title that read something like “Why I Slept with a Woman.” This intrigued me. What do the written arts have to do with the sexual innuendo the title implied?  Nothing, it turned out. It was just a ho-hum post on how to save money at a conference by sharing a room with another of the attendees.  Cheap shot.  Don’t expect me back.  I’ll be reading where the titles, flashy or not, are honest, and the posts deliver what they promise

6. Be your own best friend.

A case of withered spirits is not going to help a writer produce anything. So, by all means, cheer yourself up, whatever it takes. But you also have to get real. There are inherent difficulties with your chosen work—isolation, rejection, penury, and more. If you’re going to do the work, you have to reconcile the reality to the dream. Otherwise, you’ll be in a constant state of feeling had, which is not fertile grounds for good work.

7. Write about what you know.

Of course, the particulars of your own life will influence what you write. But feel free to reach beyond these boundaries to what you don’t yet know, and bring it back for the rest of us.

8.  Adhere to proper grammar.

The rules say you shouldn’t split infinitives, or end a sentence with a preposition, or begin one with “and,” “but,” or “however,” but loosen up already. The English language is a roomy, conversational, lumpy, elegant, expansive, delicate, nuanced, complicated thing. Explore the outer reaches of it, by all means. Tell your story in 140-character releases on Twitter, if you choose, and forget the grammar police. Want “to boldly go” rather than “to go boldly” where no man has been before? Go for it.

9.  Work every day.

Nonsense. Everyone needs rest.

>  If you’d like to know how other writers size up the dos and don’ts, check out this.

>  And here’s a thoughtful expression of the whole concept of writing reinterpreted to include . . . well, no written expression at all.  How’s that for breaking with convention?

Broken any rules lately? What’s your favorite do or don’t?

Comments listed with first names only, and website, if provided, but not your email. Your privacy protected, so speak your mind, if inclined. I always answer.

Photo credits: bricks, explosion – eyestar, sxc; hammer – ItsMe 1985, sxc. The “hell” quote: King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, p. 118. New York: Pocket Books, 2000.

Leave a comment


  1. Rookie

     /  April 13, 2011

    Love this entry, Denise! Maybe ‘cuz I love breaking rules. Rules can be suffocating, especially in writing…ok, gotta say it…”in my opinion”. They give me cramps. I used to tell my young writers: “If you can say it, you can write it.”,in order to relax and empower them. They needed to know that self-expression is just that and story telling is “telling” a story. We can always get the kinks out later. Love this entry! Confidence, honesty, adverbs, taboo topics & running from the grammar police, while you’re enjoyiing the task….all great advice! Thank you!

    • Hi Rookie. Thanks for writing. I know one young writer of yours who, at 21, still has his “Poetry License” in his wallet. I guess your empowerment is still working.

  2. Regarding rules, you first have to find out if they’re really “rules” at all. Sometimes, what we think of as “rules” are more like the Pirate’s Code (“…the code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”) And sometimes, an oft-repeated “rule” is just so much trumped-up hooey.

    For example, in English grammar, there isn’t actually any “rule” that says you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. (SHAMELESS SELF-LINKING ALERT! For more on this, see my blog post “Is a preposition something you should end a sentence with?”)

    Same thing with the prohibition against starting a sentence with “Hopefully.” That’s not a rule, it’s a shibboleth.

    • Hi Roy. Thanks for your thoughts. I agree with you, of course. Trumped-up hooey is exactly what we don’t need!

  3. Julia

     /  May 24, 2011

    About as lovely and apt a post as I’ve read in a long time!

    • Hello Julia. Thanks for writing. I appreciate hearing from you. Come around often. Your voice welcome.

  4. Ah, those adverbs. I try to keep them to a minimum, but they do have their place. But it’s grates on the nerves to see them poorly used in dialogue attribution. THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE is a good read, but everytime someone said something irreverently, I felt like I got punched in the gut.

    • Hi Jack. Thanks for writing and for supplying a smile. I sure know that punched in the gut feeling (like the “got milk?” campaign – ouch!). Come around again. Your thoughts welcome.

  5. I realized that writing every day is a bad idea. You will write better when you have time to recharge your brain, and just because you are not writing, doesn’t mean you can’t brainstorm…

    • Hi Michael,
      Thanks for writing. Serious writers find their rhythm. You have to write AND recharge. Without the latter, it’s hard to produce very good work. There’s no energy for it or perspective, which is just as important. Come again. Your voice welcome. D

  6. Hey, thanks for the mention!

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