When to Follow Generally Accepted Guidelines

Writing rules exist for a reason.

In many cases, following what I prefer to refer to as generally accepted guidelines strengthens our stories. The guidelines are generally accepted because they work. They’ve been proven over time by a multitude of authors.

When we first begin writing and are learning the craft, we’re wise to heed the advice of those who’ve traveled this path before us. Doing so can help us produce stories that will move us closer to the goal of publication.

Here are two specific instances when following the guidelines can serve us.

When we enter contests. I’ve served as a contest judge several times. We judges are taught to look for certain things, such as a strong beginning, minimal backstory, and likable characters. We also gauge how close an entry is to being marketable.

One thing that indicates an entry isn’t ready for publication is a seeming disregard for the guidelines. An abundance of adverbs, the overuse of dialogue tags other than “said” or “asked,” and the use of weak verbs can indicate that a writer could use work on these story elements and lead a judge to deduct points. Conversely, showing a respect for the guidelines by adhering to them tells a judge the entrant knows them and chooses to make good use of them, which will be reflected in the scores and can help lead to a final.

When we’re querying. Like contest judges, agents and editors want to see that a writer has a good grasp of the guidelines. Unlike judges, who must read the entire entry, a publishing professional is looking for reason to pass on a story. Thus, we don’t want to give them cause by ignoring the guidelines generally accepted in publishing circles. It’s to our advantage to follow them so the agent or editor keeps reading our submission as long as possible.

Since following the guidelines can help lead to contest finals and contracts, doing so is a good practice. While it’s wise to follow the generally accepted guidelines in most cases, though, there are times when it can be to our advantage not to do so. I’ll touch on those in my next post.

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When you enter a contest, do you attempt to  follow generally accepted writing guidelines?

Do you think following the guidelines can help you impress an agent or editor?

Can you think of other times when following the guidelines serves you?

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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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7 Responses to When to Follow Generally Accepted Guidelines

  1. I am learning the guidelines, Keli, and I intend to follow them. If I am ever published and become settled in my style, I may fly higher, but for now, the more I know of them, the more I follow them. Thank you for your helpful post. Blessings to you…

  2. Sherrinda says:

    I’m learning to follow the rules. There’s so many of those rules that sometimes it is difficult to remember them all! 🙂 But like the saying goes, practice makes perfect. (well, obviously not perfect, but you get what I mean!)

  3. candidkerry says:

    I’m still learning what the general guidelines are in the fiction world, and I’ll definitely try to follow them. I’ve had a couple writing friends point out my tendency to overuse adverbs and another who pointed out my use of passive verbs, so I’m learning to watch that in my writing. But overall, following these guidelines will tighten up our writing and make for less editing later, I think.

    Thank you for this helpful info!

  4. Thanks for these reminders, Keli. I recently entered my very first writing contest, and made sure I adhered to the guidelines! Even though my computer didn’t want to “cooperate” (margins & font) and I had to keep going back, I sure didn’t want to be disqualified. 😉 I personally think it is very important to follow guidelines–especially in a contest or when targeting an agent or editor. 🙂 Thanks again for sharing!

  5. Wendy says:

    Great points. I think this might apply when you get a critique back from a more experienced author as well. Not that you need to apply every single thing they suggest, but it’s worth it to respect their advice and their knowledge.

    Hope that makes sense.
    ~ Wendy

  6. Julie Nilson says:

    My writing critique group is fantastic for keeping me on track with writing-technique guidelines. For example, one writer has a pet peeve about adverbs, so whenever I’m getting a story ready for their review, I look for unnecessary adverbs that I *know* she’ll see. Another is excellent at creating setting and using creative phrasing, so I always make sure I don’t have any cliches that will bug her. I tease them about it, but having them looking over my shoulder is making me a better writer!

    As for submission guidelines, whether for a contest or to an agent, I think a person should follow those to the letter. If you’re not willing to follow a few simple rules when sending in a query, are you going to be willing to take critique and rewrite notes?

  7. terri tiffany says:

    I think I am pretty much a rule player because I understand the value in following them. I want to be taken seriously and really considered so I do it!

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