Yes, you read that right. Writing rules do not exist.
You might be wondering how I can say that as an editor, especially when my website is full of writing tips and advice, but it’s true. Writing rules are not real.
That is not to say that you can write your novel any way you like and are guaranteed publication. Of course that isn’t true.
It also doesn’t mean that there are not guidelines, standards, and best practices that writers would be wise to stick to.
The important thing to remember is that every novel is different. The “rules” on websites and in novel writing books usually apply to most novels most of the time, especially if you are writing genre fiction in third-limited POV (the “typical” novel if there is one).
The truth is that writing advice is highly dependent on many factors. A strong voice can benefit from telling (rather than showing) that could ruin a weaker one. Literary fiction can feel richer with derailments into tangential thoughts that would seem pointless in genre fiction. And YA can get away with a whinier main character that plays on the true experiences of teens. But even these examples are just generalizations, not rules.
Every single book is unique. It is impossible to give advice that applies to every novel in every genre written by every author. After all, it’s not as if every published book you pick up has a complete character arc, is free of adverbs, and opens with a hook. Nearly every novel is bound to break some rules some of the time.
The trick to being a great writer is to know when you are breaking from writing standards and to have a very good reason for doing so. When you deviate from writing “rules” it should be because it adds value for the reader, not because it’s easier to write or because you don’t understand what the rules mean.
And if your agent, editor, or beta readers tell you your rule breaking is hurting your novel, listen and consider the benefits of changing your approach.
But as long as you have a reason for doing what you’re doing and it seems to be working in your novel, don’t sweat it if you’re breaking the “rules.” You will kill your creativity, waste your time, and suck the joy out of writing if you blindly follow every piece of advice.
So yes, there are no writing rules. Advice is just advice, not gospel. So be smart about the advice you disregard, but be just as smart about the advice you accept.
11 thoughts on “Writing Rules Do Not Exist”
I’m literally sitting at my desk clapping right now. Well said. You nailed it! Rules are meant to be broken . . . by those who know what the rules actually are. Great post! Sharing on Twitter!
Thanks! I’m really glad you like the post!
I did. It’s exactly what I’ve been saying!
Thank you for putting it so beautifully. Overcoming the fear of breaking the “rules” has been a long road for me. It’s one thing to be aware of them and quite another to be paralyzed by them.
Yes! Being paralyzed by rules can make it impossible to write, especially when you feel like everything that makes sense for your novel is “wrong.” I’m glad you related to the post. Thanks for reading!
Pablo Picasso: Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.
Good points, Ellen. My analogy of writing a book is like trying to give birth to a baby that is larger than you are. It’s so hard, especially the first time, but worth all the effort and pain in the end!
Birthing a baby larger than I am is a scary image! But I know exactly what you mean! Thanks for reading!
Although I’m not a musician at all, this kinda reminds me of going to a music school, learning the basic principles over the years (jazz, classical, folk, etc.) and then “breaking the rules” because you’ve taking a creative leap that enhances the music. Great post, Ellen. 🙂
I really love everything you do. I’m hoping for more videos sometime…. (Hint hint😊)
Hopefully I will have time to make more soon! I’m glad you like them!