Which Writer Rules Are More Like Guidelines?

If you ask a writer which writing rules are more like guidelines, they’ll probably say “all of them”. While there are writers who can break every rule in the house and make it work just on the strength of their writing, most of us have to be a little more intentional with our words. Knowing what each rule does and how it works turns breaking a rule into a tool in your writer’s toolbox. Personally, I like the know the rules and follow them — unless I have a reason not to.

Show, Don’t Tell

What is showing versus telling?

In writing, showing is when you describe something happening, and telling is when you explain what happened at a higher level — often a sort of summary.

Showing: He trudged across the plains, feet aching, as the summer sun took its time setting.
Telling: It took all day for him to cross the plains.

Why do we avoid it?

Showing is more dynamic, full of description, action, and dialogue.

Why might we want to use it?

To quickly tell of a shift in time or location or simply to skim over events that need to be explained but aren’t vital for the plot to be on the page.

Don’t Use Passive Voice

What is passive voice?

Passive voice happens when you decenter the verb (the action) away from the subject performing it. Typically identified by having a helping verb in the form of the verb “to be” (am, is, was, were, be, being, been) paired with another verb (excluding when past or future tense require a helping verb).

Passive voice: Five people were attacked by a caped crusader.

Active voice: A caped crusader attacked five people.

In the active voice, our subject is “a caped crusader”, our verb/action is “attacked”, and our direct object is “people”. “Five” in this sentence is being used as an adjective or quantifier.

Why do we avoid it?

Active voice is more dynamic and gives ownership of the action to the one performing it. Or, it can be a form of telling, instead of showing.

Why might we want to use it?

When the character doesn’t have control of situation, passive voice can help highlight their lack of control. Passive voice can also be used to distance the reader from the action, to make them care just a little less. It can be used in scene transitions to jump time or location.

Don’t Use Adverbs

What are adverbs?

Adverbs modify a verb, another adverb, or an adjective (a word that describes a noun). They describe how, whenwherehow often, and how much. A large majority of adverbs can be identified by searching for words ending with the letters “ly”.

Adverbs: quickly, tomorrow, repeatedly, slowest

Why do we avoid them?

They can be a form of telling, instead of showing, plus — they can usually be replaced by a stronger verb!

“Walked slowly” turns into “strolled”,

Why might we want to use them?

There are times when removing an adverb, even with the replacement of a stronger verb, loses meaning. Adverbs describing ‘how’ something is done are simpler to remove. It can also be a stylistic choice, for when the character doesn’t have control of the situation, to highlight their lack of control, or to distance the reader from the action.

Don’t use sentence fragments

What are sentence fragments?

In English, a sentence has a subject and a verb, often with more language to expound on the situation. Even when giving an order like “March!”, the subject “you” is inferred (called an imperative). Sentence fragments are phrases that don’t contain both a subject and a verb.

Full sentence: She ate the sandwich.
Fragment: Eating the sandwich.

Why do we avoid them?

These are incomplete sentences and thus poor grammar.

Why might we want to use them?

It can be part of the writer’s voice. Sometimes, it’s a thought that they want the reader to sit with, while other times it’s a way to build tension during an action scene. Short paragraphs and sentences, even fragments read faster, and give the scene more speed and urgency.

Don’t end a sentence with a preposition

What’s a preposition?

A preposition is a word that describes a noun’s relation to something else.

Prepositions: on, under, around, across, in, at
Prepositional Phrases: around the corner, across the street, in the closet under the stairs

Why do we avoid them?

There’s a grammar rule that was pulled in from Latin that says we’re not supposed to. I usually try to avoid ending a sentence with one.

Why might we want to use them?

Sometimes, rewording a sentence to not end in a preposition would cause the sentence to be harder to read and parse properly, or the intended concept would be lost.

Example: It’s a thought that they want the reader to sit with.

Write what you know

What does this mean?

A writer should take places and experiences from their own life or knowledge and build their story off of that.

Why should we avoid things we don’t know?

Readers are great at seeing the holes in our stories, if you write about something you have little experience or knowledge about, they will find the holes and expose them. Whenever you get a detail wrong, there will be some readers knocked out of the story long enough that some may just put the book down and walk away.

Why might we want to use things we don’t know?

Most genre fiction is built on things we will never experience — galactic empires, floating castles, serial killers, or true fated mates. But, how we create our stories is by building off our core understanding of what humanity is, blended with either all of our hopes and dreams and the heights we can rise to, or our fears and nightmares, and the depths we can sink to. Or perhaps? Combining our dreams and our nightmares.

No matter the setting or the characters, we can draw on our own experiences of hopes, ambitions, family drama, fears, and love to imbue our imaginary worlds with ‘what we know’.

The complexities of asides

What does this mean?

In writing, the author often wants to give further information about a subject within a sentence. While these can be demarcated in a variety of ways, typically an author will pick one and use that method throughout their work.

  1. Comma-separated: Vasalissa picked a path across the rocks and the piles of pungent kelplike, a scent as salty and bitter as the sea.
  2. Parentheticals: Vasalissa picked a path across the rocks and the piles of pungent kelplike, (a scent as salty and bitter as the sea).
  3. Footnotes: Vasalissa picked a path across the rocks and the piles of pungent kelplike¹.
  4. Em-dashes: Vasalissa picked a path across the rocks and the piles of pungent kelplike — a scent as salty and bitter as the sea.
  5. Colons: Vasalissa picked a path across the rocks and the piles of pungent kelplike: a scent as salty and bitter as the sea.

Academic works lean toward the semicolons and footnotes, bloggers like the parentheticals, comma-separated and parenthetical used to be the go-to in fiction, but now authors are leaning more toward em-dashes.

Note: An em-dash is typically typed as two hyphens, that are then joined into a slightly wider single line by most writing applications. En-dashes are typically typed as a space before a hyphen and most writing applications turn it into a slightly longer dash, used for conjoining separate words or showing a range, usually of dates. Hyphens are used for adding prefixes/suffixes to words and in hyphenated compound words. Only the copyeditor will generally notice if you confuse an en-dash and a hyphen. Most people can spot the difference between those and an em-dash. Fun fact: en-dashes are often used as em-dashes in British writing.

Note 2: Semicolons are typically used to combine two independent clauses — with their own subjects and verbs. They could stand alone, or be conjoined with a conjunction like “but”, “yet”, or “however”, or simply with the semicolon. Colons are used for subordinate clauses — that don’t have their own subject and verb.

Which should I use?

Typically, one uses the standard method for the genre one is working in. More literary fiction might tend toward academic-styled semicolons and footnotes.

Start at the beginning and go to the end

Why do we want to write in order?

Stories have a beginning, middle, and end. We have to know who the characters are before stuff happens to them, and then we have to know where they end up.

Why might we write out of order?

First off, the reader has no clue what order you’ve written it in. Many authors know some scenes and write the ones that excite them at the moment, jumping around. While that doesn’t usually work for me, it’s tried and true for some authors.

Secondly, not all stories are linear. Some stories start at the climax, then jump back to show us how we got there. Other stories have parallel plots between ‘now’ and ‘flashbacks’, often showing how we got to the present situation. There are stories that follow multiple characters and the timelines may vary between them. And other stories simply follow a narrative flow, even while they jump around in time.

Thirdly. Non-linear stories work really well for the ‘unreliable narrator’ trope. If you hide key scenes from the reader until later, you can have a bigger reveal.

Don’t write a sentence out of order

What is an out of order sentence?

Writers often add phrases to a sentence showing a reaction, before describing the event.

Out-of-order:  Lilivan’s magic is nearly revealed to the hostel when she accidentally triggers her magic while praying.
In-order: While praying, Lilivan accidentally triggers her magic, nearly revealing her magic to the hostel.

Why should we avoid out of order sentences?

They are harder for the reader to properly parse.

Why might we write out of order?

Sometimes, we want the focus to be on the first part of the sentence and not the second. Sometimes the order doesn’t matter.

Characters must change

Why must characters change?

Stories tend to not just have a plot arc, but also an emotional arc, in which the main character(s) run into trouble — often made worse by a character flaw — are taught how to overcome this flaw, and then succeed in the end. The story shows the character growing into a better person, or a worse person, depending on the story. But, in either case, they change.

Why might we not want characters to change?

Usually, stagnant characters are part of a series, typically detective stories and that sort of thing. Stories where readers just come back for another episode of the main characters doing their thing.

Sometimes stagnant characters are part of the theme of the story, usually ending up with the character back in the same place — or a worse place at the end of the story. These stories are often fatalistic or emphasize the futility of fighting against something.

I before E

In English, when learning to spell, we’re often taught the rhyme, “i, before e, except after c, or as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh'”. Except, this is English and there are more exceptions to the rules than followers.

Followers: believe, chief, field, achieve, fierce, die
Listed Rhyme Exceptions: receive, neighbor, weigh
Exceptions: weird, science, seize, their, heir, society…

Avoid adjectives

What are adjectives?

Adjectives describe a noun, sometimes multiple adjectives are given for a single noun.

Why should we avoid adjectives?

Adjectives are used to describe nouns. Too much description can slow the pacing of the story. Action and dialogue often read much faster, and keep the tension higher. Description tends to lower the tension and slow the reading of the story.

Some writers end up writing what is known as “purple prose”, defined by Wikipedia as: overly ornate prose text that may disrupt a narrative flow by drawing undesirable attention to its own extravagant style of writing, thereby diminishing the appreciation of the prose overall. Purple prose is characterized by the excessive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors.

Why might we use adjectives?

If a character, place, or object is important to the scene, they should be described at least somewhat for the readers. We want to avoid ‘white room syndrome’, where we don’t know what the space or characters look like.

Some writers have what is known as ‘lyrical voices’, which tend toward more descriptive and poetic voices.

Adjectives aren’t a major problem until they start to slow the reading, and sometimes we want to slow down and let the reader catch their breath after an intense action or dialogue scene.

Do remember to use them in moderation though, a list of more than three descriptors starts to get unwieldy.

Closing thoughts

While this is far from an exhaustive list, hopefully understanding what is meant by these rules, how they work, and why one might want to break these rules will help you use your words more intentionally.

Are there any rules you like to break?
Any guidelines that I missed?

1 Comment

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s