Relief for the Writing Rules Obsessed

When it comes to fiction writing, rules abound.

Rigid, the Rules Obsessed Raccoon

Some of us can recite them in our sleep.

Avoid adverbs.

Use exclamation points sparingly.

The only acceptable dialogue tags are said and asked.

Rigid adherence to rules is one of Twelve Troublemakers that plague me as a writer. I’m exploring one a week. This is the seventh in the series.

A rules fixation can stifle the joy of creation.

Think back to the days when you crafted your first story. Many of us experienced the thrill of discovery as we plopped words on the page. Because we knew little about the writing craft, we were free to create the stories of our hearts.

Over time, we learned the various elements every good story needs. As a result of our ongoing study, we became aware of a long list of writing rules that rivaled the I.R.S. code.

While knowing the rules can serve us, rigid adherence to them can squelch our creativity and squeeze the life out of our stories. It’s important to keep the rules in perspective.

Redefine the Rules.

Rules, according to Merriam-Webster, are “a prescribed guide for conduct or action.” They’re set, fixed, and apply in all situations.

Think of a sports team or grammar. If a baseball player swings at a pitch and misses, it’s a strike. A sentence begins with a capital. Those are the rules.

In creative writing, however, we have leeway. A paragraph can contain a single word. An occasional fragment is perfectly acceptable. The grammar police won’t knock on our doors if we begin a sentence with a conjunction or end one with a preposition.

Grammar isn’t the only area covered by rules. There are many craft-related rules, too, such as those at the beginning of this post. However, I’m sure we could find plenty of examples where published authors used an adverb, exclamation points, or dialogue tags other than “said” or “asked.” Clearly, writerly rules aren’t as rigid as one might think.

Here’s a thought that can bring a rules obsessed writer relief. Instead of referring to the guiding principles as rules, . . .

Use the Term Generally Accepted Guidelines.

A guideline, says the online dictionary in my Word program, is “a general rule, principle, or piece of advice.” Even though “rule” is used in the definition, the modifier “general” in front of it introduces the element of choice, which is inherent in the word “advice” as well.

I realize this is a matter of semantics, but we’re writers. We’re all about making wise word choices that most clearly convey meaning, right? So, why use the word “rules” with its rigidity when the word “guidelines” is available and more accurate?

See how that subtle change offers relief?

While the guidelines are in place for a reason, knowing our manuscript won’t be rejected if a character “squeaks” a line of dialogue or addresses another character in a “sickeningly sweet tone” can relieve the minds of the rules obsessed. (The examples quoted are from the manuscript my agent sold, proving  that there’s hope for even those as hung up on rules as I tend to be. :-))

In my next post, I’ll talk about the reasons for the guidelines and how to best use them.

Your Thoughts . . . and a Drawing

Have you been overwhelmed by the sheer number of “rules” at times?

Do you find the use of the term “guidelines” more fitting than “rules?”

Are there certain guidelines you disagree with or have questions about?

One person who leaves a comment and answers one of these questions will win the raccoon pictured above. If you don’t have a use for this cute little Folkmanis finger puppet, you could always share it with a child or grandchild. Plus, I’ll add a surprise for you.

I’ll hold the drawing Sunday, March 27th and include the winner’s name in the post published the next day, when I’ll introduce the next of the Twelve Troublemakers.

Lil’ Stinker, the self-defeating skunk from last Monday’s post goes to Erin.

Odds of winning vary based on number of entrants.
I’ll ship to U.S. and Canadian addresses only.
Offer void where prohibited.
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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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9 Responses to Relief for the Writing Rules Obsessed

  1. Sherrinda says:

    Rules, rules, rules…I am learning to view them with a critical eye, choosing to break one or two at times, because I think my story flows better that way. I’m learning that rules are in place to tighten our writing, but sometimes the rules can be broken to enhance the story and help it have a certain “flavor”.

    I’ve been missing your posts, for some reason. Sorry I’ve been “away”! I re-subscribed, so I think we are all good now. 🙂

  2. Wendy says:

    Oh, I like guidelines. I’ve heard the expression invite a reader into your book instead of hook. Reminds me of that. Makes sense that as a writer you’d care about which word seems to fit better, guidelines or rules. Makes perfect sense to me.
    ~ Wendy

  3. Sometimes I feel like those pesky writing rules back me into a corner from which there is no escape! Argh! But, I have to say I like “generally accepted guidelines”. It just sounds much friendlier, doesn’t it? *smile*

  4. Tana Adams says:

    Congrats to Erin for winning little stinker! I think the rules of writing are getting on my last literary nerve. I’m going to write a novel rife with adverbs and gerunds and lots of over used cliche’s so I can stop feeling bad about avoiding them like the plague.

  5. “Guidelines” does sound much more flexible but since I’m clueless to both the rules and the guideliens, I find I worry about it all. 🙂 Maybe one day, I’ll have it all figured out.

  6. Thank you Keli – – I much prefer “guidelines” to RULES!! 😉 And I must admit that I go through phases when I become overly focused on the “rules” and it definitely can stifle the creativity. ~ By the way, that raccoon is precious! 🙂 Thank you again for this post—I’m really enjoying and gleaning a lot from this series you’re doing each week.

  7. Jill Kemerer says:

    Guidelines relieve me; rules paralyze me. My manuscripts contain adverbs, fragments, and any other number of writing “sins”! I’m glad we have the rules, but it’s okay to bend them too.

  8. Cindy R. Wilson says:

    The list of rules kept growing and growing and by the last manuscript I started, I felt completely stifled. If we sit and try to follow every single rule we’ve heard, there’s now way to let creativity loose. In fact, there’s no way to even let creativity have a little space. Now guidelines…I can get behind that 🙂 And what’s helped me lately is narrowing down what publisher my work fits best with. Becoming familiar with their books and what they’re looking for has lessened all the rules I’m trying to follow and given me some great guidelines to work with.

  9. I wrote my first novel without any knowledge of the craft, other than grammar. When it was finished I immediately went out and bought my first book on how to write! Now I have a shelf full of them. I don’t think I’ll ever know enough, but possibly the best approach is to absorb and digest all the rules (I like your idea of guidelines) and then, instead of deliberately trying to apply them, just let the knowledge influence how we write, especially during a first draft.

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