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?