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The "Rules" of Writing

By sjohnston 2017-10-23 06:48:31.578Z2017-10-24 01:08:32.394Z

There are a lot of axioms that get tossed around in creative writing courses, books on writing, and of course, the internet. Often, these little gems are explained to new writers as though they were fact, to be taken for granted.

Just as often, experienced writers will respond by saying "there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing", or "rules are made to be broken".

So, the purpose of this question is to provide a place where we can list these axioms or "rules" of writing, and also weigh in on whether they are really self-evident truths or utter garbage (or maybe even something in-between).

Please limit each answer to a single "rule" and express your thoughts on it in the answer itself, or in a comment.

This page is mostly a copy of this writers.stackexchange.com question, license: CC BY-SA 3.0.

  • 32 replies

There are 32 replies. Estimated reading time: 20 minutes

  1. S
    sjohnston 2017-10-23 07:05:06.706Z

    Show, Don't Tell

    This may very well be the most popular "rule" of writing. It refers to the idea that it's better to "show" an event as a scene, rather than simply "telling" the reader what happened.

    In my opinion, this is mostly sound advice:

    • Don't tell us the 5000-year history of your fantasy setting in the prologue. Show it to us throughout the story.
    • Don't tell us the protagonist's girlfriend is beautiful. Show us her flowing black hair, her lips perpetually on the verge of smiling, her brown eyes with those eerie golden flecks.
    • Don't tell us the thief was nervous. Show us how he has to close his eyes and breathe, just to stop his hands from shaking.

    On the other hand, sometimes there is information that the reader needs to know to understand the story, but forcing that information into a scene would divert the plot or bore the reader to tears.

    • Don't show us the Senators explaining to each other how the seat of US government is Washington D.C. They have no reason to tell each other what they already know. Instead, just tell us.
    • Don't show the young wizard taking a tour of the magical staff factory, when he has no business being there. Just tell us that all magical staves are carved from the wood of the whump-whump tree.

    More discussion can be found here.

    1. Ddvanaria 2017-10-23 12:43:15.489Z

      I agree, this answer (Show, Don't Tell) should be at the top. But I think it misses the main point of what this really means. I don't want to criticize this entry too harshly, because I too was very much confused about what this saying (Show, Don't Tell) really means. -> When I'm watching a movie, or reading a book, or listening to someone, I don't ever like to be TOLD how to FEEL about something. It's like seeing an infomercial. It immediately makes me tune out and push it away. Don't TELL me how to feel, SHOW me what's going on, SHOW me how a character is reacting, SHOW me her heart racing.

      Let me make up my own mind about how I feel about what's going on. Let me form my own opinions. Just report what happens (SHOW it to me). Don't tell me how to feel (don't TELL).

      1. SSeth Gordon 2017-10-23 12:46:22.032Z

        The aesthetic rule underlying “show, don’t tell” is that character and emotion are most effectively revealed by action. (If your best friend tells you that her new boyfriend is a great humanitarian, and then you see him browbeating the waitress in a restaurant, which will make a bigger impression on you?) But for events that are secondary to the main plot line (including, I would say, that 5000-year fantasy history) or when you need to convey information that doesn’t have to develop or reveal character, the decision to show vs. tell should be made on the grounds of pacing.

        1. JJay 2017-10-23 12:47:50.492Z

          It's a good general rule, but like almost any rule, if applied mindlessly you can get absurd results. If you tell me, "Bob was a very rude person", that's kind of boring. But if you have scenes where he is rude to everyone he meets, I'll get the message much more effectively. But you don't have to be ridiculous about it. If you want to say that, for example, a certain character is from Britain, it's perfectly okay to just say, "Bob is from Britain". You don't have to give subtle hints about it and beat around the bush.

        2. S
          sjohnston 2017-10-23 07:06:23.467Z

          Cut Adjectives and Adverbs

          This "rule" is often stated more forcefully as "remove all adjectives and adverbs," but, like most of these rules, I don't think it should be blindly followed. Sometimes, an adjective or an adverb is the best way to get across exactly what you're trying to say.

          The main time to avoid using them is when a stronger noun or verb would get the same point across. This is really just a specific application of a broader rule: never use two words when one will suffice. Some examples:

          • Replace "The huge man loomed over him" with "The giant loomed over him."
          • Replace "John ran quickly" with "John sprinted."

          Note, however, that in most of these cases the two-word combination will have slightly different connotations than the single-word replacement. These differences are worth thinking about. Just ask yourself if what you're trying to say is worth that extra word. Think especially hard if you're using more than one adjective or adverb, as these can really stand out to readers as being overly verbose.

          So, adjectives and adverbs shouldn't be cut simply on principle, but a good rule of thumb is to look at each one and double check that it's really worth having.

          More discussion here.

          1. DDavid Thornley 2017-10-23 12:57:01.475Z

            This ties in with "show, don't tell". It's far too easy to use adjectives to avoid the sorts of details that can bring a scene to life. sjohnston's second two "don't"s refer to using adjectives ("beautiful" and "nervous") to substitute for concrete details the reader can use to see what's happening.

            1. A@AnnapolisKen2018-05-09 15:28:13.529Z

              Adjectives and adverbs can also be divisive and subjective. So can nouns and verbs, of course, but leaving out adjectives and adverbs can give your prose at least more of the appearance of objectivity, and hence allow it to be more persuasive.

          2. A
            Adam Gurri 2017-10-23 06:58:54.562Z

            You have to read, and read all the time.

            There are no iron laws of writing. I'm sure that if I told you that it was impossible to do good writing without reading much, someone could find a handful of examples of great writers who barely read.

            But for the rest of us normal human beings, writing isn't something that happens in a vacuum. To understand writing you have to see how it's been done before. Even the really bad stuff will teach you something.

            So read, and don't just read one thing. Read literature, read genre, read nonfiction, read comic books; read a lot and read a lot of different things.

            1. JJürgen A Erhard 2017-10-23 13:05:07.726Z

              I can't upvote this enough.

              1. KKen Mohnkern 2017-10-23 13:25:21.889Z

                This is the answer to so many questions on this site. (In other words, when someone asks how to write something it looks to me like they haven't been reading enough.)

              2. F
                Fox Cutter 2017-10-23 06:53:50.067Z

                Give yourself permission to suck.

                That's not to say just write bad stuff, but don't stress about the quality of your writing when you are writing it. Stressing about the quality of the work can keep you from writing and even cause writer's block. You have to accept that what you write won't be perfect at first, but you can fix it when you do your edits and rewrites.

                1. Ssjohnston 2017-10-23 12:50:47.208Z

                  The NaNoWriMo Creed! This is a great rule, so long as you remember the last part: editing later.

                  1. DDavid Thornley 2017-10-23 12:56:34.970Z

                    Or write something else later. Some stories are simply too flawed to be worth editing. As long as the writer learns something from them, they're not a waste.

                  2. Sslashmais 2017-10-23 12:54:22.769Z

                    this, for me as a novice, seems like very good advice indeed

                    1. Hhildred 2017-10-23 12:58:14.137Z

                      As I always say The secret to great ideas is lots of ideas, and a big trashcan.

                    2. T
                      tankadillo 2017-10-23 07:14:04.500Z

                      I like Elmore Leonard's 10 rules:

                      1. Never open a book with weather.
                      2. Avoid prologues.
                      3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
                      4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
                      5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
                      6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
                      7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
                      8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
                      9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
                      10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

                      My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

                      If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

                      1. TTannalein 2017-10-23 13:19:12.187Z

                        #3 is highly debatable, I've seen a lot of pros and cons on the subject. #5 is a bit ridiculous, putting a number on a punctuation mark. You use it when you need to use it, no more and no less. Same goes for ellipses, semicolons, dashes and I don't know what else... If you have too many of either, you're doing it wrong. I like #8,9,10 though :)

                        1. JJürgen A Erhard 2017-10-23 13:23:08.560Z

                          Never say "never" is what I say. Empathically. (But #4 I like)

                        2. J
                          John Smithers 2017-10-23 06:57:17.081Z

                          Write, Don't Edit!

                          The most important rule of all. Everything else is secondary. Even "Show, don't tell".

                          It is the editor in your head you have to fight. He is nagging you: "You can't do that! What garbage have you written here? Are you serious? You will never be a good writer, if you keep doing scribbling this nonsense!"

                          Well, you can do, you are serious and you scribble all the "nonsense" you like. You have to! Every idea that flashes through your head, write it down. Kick out your editor, kick him hard. The truth is, that more than 90% is garbage, what you are writing. But you will never write down the 10% which are really brilliant, if you listen to your editor.

                          Have you ever started to write a letter or a paragraph of your book, found a spelling error, a grammar error and stopped writing? Have corrected the error, thought about how you can formulate that better? And after you let your editor interrupt yourself, have you tried to finish your paragraph and did not know, what the hell you wanted to write? It was all gone. You were sitting there for twenty more minutes to make something up, when you knew what you wanted to write, when you started. But you listened to the bastard in your head, the editor, and now it's all gone. Silence him! Write, don't edit. You have plenty of time editing, when everything is written down.

                          1. JJürgen A Erhard 2017-10-23 13:22:34.722Z

                            One of the best bits I ever wrote (sadly, lost, and I'm not sure I can (ever) recreate it) was, well, just written down as fast as I could. It just "flowed".

                          2. E
                            Ethan 2017-10-23 07:10:37.625Z

                            Don’t go into great detail describing places and things

                            This is one of Elmore Leonard's "Ten Rules." I selected it from the list almost at random -- all ten are worth heeding. I love it because it's so counterintuitive -- you want to add color and detail to your story, right? No, you don't. You want to add story to your story, and just enough descriptive detail to bring it to life, which is generally a lot less than you would think. One brilliantly-chosen detail is worth half a page of description, no matter how beautifully it was written.

                            1. Ssjohnston 2017-10-23 12:53:01.411Z

                              This is a hard one to strike the right balance on. I write speculative fiction, where it is especially challenging to minimize this sort of description, as you're often describing things that don't have obvious real-world analogues.

                              1. TMarion LAMÉ @TestHTK2019-01-09 19:42:14.401Z

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                                1. NNick Bedford 2017-10-23 13:08:54.032Z

                                  I think Tolkien would be down voting this if he were still with us.

                                  1. EEthan 2017-10-23 13:14:45.935Z

                                    Yes, Tolkien did favor extremely long descriptive and expository passages. And of course that's a perfectly legitimate approach, especially with fantasy literature. But unless you're really brilliant at it, I think you're better off following the Elmore Leonard model. And even Tolkien is a pretty tough slog to get through in some places.

                                  2. Uuser5645 2017-10-23 13:16:21.570Z

                                    The reason for this rule is: If you write, "[Your character] is beautiful", each reader will imagine this person in the way he or she finds most attractive. If you describe your idea of beauty, chances are, most readers will not find this beautiful, and your novel won't work for them. The same goes for "He ate a tasty meal", "He told a funny joke" etc. Only describe what is necessary to define your story ("Despite her thick eyebrows she was beautiful to him." "He said [the joke] and they actually all found it funny.")

                                  3. D2
                                    Dawn 2017-10-23 06:55:58.521Z

                                    Stay off the Internet when you're writing.

                                    It's no timeworn tidbit, but I'll venture it's axiomatic.

                                    A timely example:

                                    Ten minutes ago I was primed to cap off a chapter. Now here I am, chapter-capless, browsing and clicking and typing and web-clipping, pasting notes that will make great endings or even greater stored kilobytes I'll never again ask my CPU to recall. All because I took a moment's peek into the web to see if Liu Xiaobo is trending this morning. Same goes for You, about to comment on what I posted: If this is your dedicated writing time, go away. Get offline. Online's wonderful and time-pilfering diversions will still be here when we return during less valuable hours-- such as while we set about our day jobs.

                                    1. A2Alexandro Chen 2017-10-23 13:01:02.767Z

                                      I think it's quite helpful to listen to songs that fit the atmosphere of your novel (in Grooveshark) or to check some pictures of something you are describing (Google Images).

                                    2. K
                                      kindall 2017-10-23 07:00:44.960Z

                                      Writing is Rewriting

                                      You've completed your first draft. Congratulations! Next step is to send it to an agent or a publisher, right?

                                      Not quite yet. Especially if you are relatively new to the writing game, you will spend a lot more time revising your manuscript than you did writing the first draft. More than you think it needs now. More than you think anyone in history has ever spent. Not to sound discouraging, but you will likely need to revise it multiple times before it is saleable, and you will probably need to take breaks in between. (These can be spent working on other projects.)

                                      With experience, you will need fewer rewrites, and less input from others on what needs to be changed to make your manuscript acceptable to a publisher. Even so, the number of writers who can sell their first drafts (or even their early drafts) is minuscule. The most successful writers still make glaring continuity errors, suffer from style inconsistencies from one part of the novel to another, have characters with unbelievable motivations, and so on, and publishers will insist that these be corrected. Some seasoned pros even have trouble with basics like grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

                                      My sister, who has published a few romance novels, has been heard to say, upon finishing the first draft of one of her novels, "now the real work begins."

                                      1. N
                                        Novica Jajcanin @Novica2019-01-18 15:03:06.318Z
                                        1. K@KajMagnus2019-02-01 12:26:44.249Z

                                          This looks nice but what is it? Is it related to writing?