Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why "The Rules" are Important

Picture from stock-xchng: Doodle desks 2
Trisha’s latest post about going to college got me thinking about my own college days.  I’m really not sure how much college taught me about actual writing.  I’m not saying they weren’t helpful.  I learned a ton in college and grad school, which has inspired story ideas and enhanced my critical thinking skills.  But I learned very little about the craft of writing.  In fact, I had a few experiences in college which discouraged me about pursuing writing as a career.

The Class

In high school and my early years of college, I did really well in all my English and writing classes.  I had a decent grasp of grammar and was able to organize my thoughts well.  I always got good grades on my papers, so I thought I was an excellent writer.  Then I took an upper division technical writing class.

When I got my first paper back, my grade was good, but much lower than I expected and lower than what I was used to.   I was a little taken back.  I did everything the professor told me to do, and there was no explanation given for the lower grade, so I took my paper to him to find out what I had done wrong. 

The teacher looked over my paper but couldn’t give me any reason for my score.  All he said was it just wasn’t as good as some of the other papers.  I was frustrated because I wanted to learn.  I didn’t want to be an okay writer.  I wanted to be a damn good writer like I had thought I was, and if there was something wrong with what I wrote, I wanted to figure out how to make it better.  But my professor didn’t give my any help, just a vague, “it’s good, but just not good enough” answer with no suggestions on how to make it better.  I got through that class getting the same type of grade on every single paper and learned nothing.

I just shrugged it off.  Every other teacher I had seemed to like my writing, so maybe this one professor just didn’t like my style.  Writing is subjective, right?

Grad school

But then I got to graduate school, and my Ph.D advisor didn’t like my writing either, and she also couldn’t explain why.  She just told me to read a lot of published papers and try to emulate them.  I tried and failed.  In five years, she never liked my writing, and although my lab-mates were nice about it, I could tell they agreed with her. 

There was something wrong with the way I wrote, and it wasn’t grammar or organization, but something else, and no one could tell me what it was or how to fix it.  It was so frustrating.  I wanted to be a great writer, a professional level writer, but I couldn’t figure out how to improve my writing.

The Discovery

Some said-isms created by me in Wordle
Then after I graduated, I started tinkering around with writing a novel, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking that I just wasn’t good enough to do this.  I had story ideas and characters and plots, but I just didn’t have the talent to put the words together.  I kept writing anyway, and I started googling “how to write better,” and I discovered the stylistic “rules” of writing:  avoid passive voice, don’t overuse modifiers, vary sentence structure, omit needless words, use said instead of said-isms, etc.

I realized that there is something to good writing that is beyond grammar and organization.  There is style, and having a good, mature style is important in writing.  I think there was something wrong with my writing in college and grad school.  I got the basics down, but what I had failed to do was develop a strong style. 

Finding those rules breathed hope back into me.  Finally, I could see what makes some writing stronger than others.   Finally, there was a way for me to examine my writing, discover my weaknesses, and become better. There wasn’t just some nebulous problem with my writing that I could never fix.   I could develop a strong style and learn to be a better writer.

The “Rules” of Writing

There are more rules to writing narrative than the stylistic rules, like:  avoid prologues, don’t start with waking up, show don’t tell, avoid clichés, etc.  They come from common pitfalls made by beginning writers.  None of these rules are absolutes, just things to keep in mind.  Every story breaks at least one of these rules, but that is okay.  The idea is not to follow them without question, but to stop and think about if what you are doing is best for the story or just what is easiest for you as a writer.

I’ve had arguments (on writer’s forums) with those who are against any rules, and I do tend to get frustrated with those who believe that they are harmful to writers.  The rules showed me that writing isn’t something that you are either good at or not, but a craft that can be learned.  There is nothing in writing that can’t be learned, and that gives me hope.

Sure there are writers who do just fine never learning or thinking about the rules, and that is great for them.  But what about those like me? 

This is what frustrates me about those who are adamantly opposed “the rules” because it either implies elitism; “some people are just not good enough to be writers and there is nothing they can do about it.”  Or it gives new writers permission not to try to learn the craft; “There is no such thing as well-written.  It is all subjective, so there is nothing really to learn.  Just write however want and don’t worry about it.”  Both of these attitudes are can be pitfalls that keep beginning writers from developing.

I don’t think it hurts any writer to learn “the rules” and understand them, so when they break them (and everyone does), they do so deliberately and for a good reason.  That way the broken rule will strengthen the writing instead of weakening it.

Happy writing!  J



  1. I don't like dealing in absolutes. I've had people tell me, "You can't do that!" and I've heard the argument that there are no rules to writing. I fall somewhere in the middle: I break the rules sometimes but I painfully aware when I do.

    Occasionally you get a book that breaks ALL the rules, eschews conventions such as character development or even proper grammar, and still becomes a big hit. Random people at the mall accost you with, "Have you read this book yet?!" Everybody loves it, but no one can exactly say why. I think books like this (ahem! Fifty Shades of Grey) are what kill the argument in favor of rules. People say, "But he/she did it!" I figure it's not my job to correct them. I'll keep my rules, thank you.

    1. *but I am painfully aware...

      Blogger really needs an edit feature for comments.

    2. I knew what you meant. :)

      I'm somewhere in the middle too. I like the rules as guidelines, but all that really matters is that you do what is best for the story. And those total rule breakers like "Fifty Shades of Grey" are rare. How many authors who break all the rules without any purpose really make it? My guess is very very very few, and those that do have something else going for them that makes up for being poorly written.

      I've never read "Fifty Shades of Grey," but nearly all of the traditionally published books I've read are at a publishable level, whether I liked it or not, IMO.

  2. I prefer to go with what my gut tells me instead of looking at the poster above my typing desk. That doesn't mean that I don't use rules because I do but I think real rules cannot be written down. Whatever rules we jot down, it's only a shadow of what they should be.

    1. I usually go with my gut most of the time too. But I need the rules for those time when something is wrong and I can't figure out what. Sometimes I need to be analytical when all else fails like my experience in college. I felt like I was just banging my head against the wall trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. And now I know, or at least I know what to look for.

  3. I find this post extremely interesting. I too found that college sort of killed my dreams of writing. Killed is strong word but definately wounded it, although my experience was quite different. I have the ability to be creative and being a lonely, shy and often socially ignored child (not bullyied but always feeling that I didn't quite fit) I was always making up stories in my head and often drawing them down. My ideas didn't match my writing skills. I struggle with grammer especial fragments so forth. My creative writing teacher in high school liked my writing but she didn't pretend that my grammer was good. Writing papers for college took away any pleasure writing gave me. While I ended up getting good grades in these classes, I was usually docked some points for grammer and rarely looked forward to writing. I spent a lot of time studying my papers looking for grammer and organization flaws. In fact, I think alot of creativity left me.

    Another part of this post that interests me, is there people who are so good at writing (naturals) that rules don't matter. I think to a certain degree writing is a talent like singing. I think if you want something to be a career then you have to develop your craft. I am sure all writers have weaknesses and could use some polishing.

    Good post!!

    1. I think there are aspects of writing that come easy to some people. I think some people have a real talent for putting ideas into words, but others may be more naturally creative or better at character development or plotting. I don't think anyone can naturally do everything really well without putting any effort into it, or at least it is very very rare.

  4. I absolutely believe that writing can be taught.

    I also believe that rules are made to be broken.

    But mostly I believe that MaryAnn is a brilliant writer who just keeps getting better. Great post!

    1. Thanks Sheena.

      I think that is what gives me hope. Anything can be taught. :)

  5. Funny story--I'm almost certain I took a class from David Farland while I was working on my master's degree in a completely unrelated field. It was my last semester, and I realized that I'd NEVER taken a writing class. Not even while working on my bachelor's degree. This suddenly seemed like a huge oversight, plus there was a Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy class...

    I had no idea who David Farland was, or I might have taken the class more seriously. But I got engaged that semester, and a zillion other things related to real life got in the way, and I ended up doing dreadfully. Finally I went to see him, explained that I was in a master's program and that I couldn't get a C in some undergrad class. He was so cool about it, and said he'd done the same thing while working on his master's degree. When my report card came, he'd given me an A.

    Still, I regret not taking that particular opportunity more seriously. I mean, come on! David Farland! If only I knew then what I know now. I know this is the wrong post for it, but Trisha, if you're reading, that's my advice...not all teachers are created equally. Disregard the ones who destroy your creativity, but if you get a chance to have a brilliant teacher, don't waste it!

    1. Not all teachers...created...equal. Okay, got it. And seriously? David Farland? Didn't he write a BUNCH of Star Wars books? I would have practically DIED to be in his class! (I hate to be such a nerd in public like this, but I was a huge Star Wars fan as a kid.) I promise to take this lesson to heart. Thanks Melanie! :)

    2. Melanie, I too am so jealous. That is pretty amazing, and it sounds like David Farland is a really nice guy.

      I didn't really take any creative writing classes in college (I did take one in high school). It would've been fun to take one or two. But now I think that if I had a teacher who was too hard on me, I might have taken it too personally, so maybe it is for the best that I didn't. I was far too impressionable at that age.

    3. I had absolutely no idea who he was for a long time...I loved the movies of Star Wars, but it was years later that I finally tried my first novel. He is a great guy, and I only wish I could take a class from him now.

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  7. This is a great post. It touches on a lot of thoughts I've been having lately. I tend to appreciate the more concrete rules of writing. Too much of the advice I hear comes across as double-talk, often leaving me confused or frustrated.

    I get what people mean when they argue that writing is an art, and that it should all be allowed to flow freely and creatively. But mostly I just want a sense of what I'm doing wrong, where I'm doing it wrong, and (hopefully) a reason why it's wrong. I find -- as I'm getting older -- that I have less and less patience for semantic debates about the subjectivity of right and wrong.

    Anyway, to comment more directly on your post: there's always something strange about realizing that you've learned more from google searches than years of college and grad school. I'm not saying that's wholly the case with you, but at times I suspect that my investment in an internet connection has paid out higher dividends than my investment in higher education.

    Or it could just be that I'm turning into a cynical curmudgeon.

    1. To be fair, I didn't take a lot of writing classes. If I had been an English or creative writing, I'm sure I would've learned more. In my actual major, I learned more in college and grad school than I ever could've ever learned on my own. My formal education was worth every penny and every minute I spent on it.

      But yeah, the internet is pretty awesome, and it is crazy how much you can learn from googling.

      But there is nothing more frustrating than being told that you will just naturally get better the more you write and read, and then not seeing those results. I read and wrote scientific papers for four years (including a thesis) and never felt that I was getting better. Learning intuitively doesn't always work. Sometimes you just need those concrete rules.


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