Rules of Writing

Posted by on March 2, 2010 in how to, memes, uncategorized, writing | 14 comments

Because I’ve always wanted to be one of the cool kids…

I think that the last of these rules is *by far* the most important; however, in the spirit of the meme, I give you my ten rules of writing:

1.  Read.  A lot. Read the genre you’re writing in.  Read other genres.  Learn the rules of genres, so that you can apply them, then twist them, then break them.  Understand where giants have walked before you, so that you can take advantage of the footsteps they’ve left behind.  (This rule becomes all-important when you are switching from writing in one comfortable-to-you genre to a new one.  Memorize the new terrain, until it becomes second nature to travel there.)

2.  Write.  You’re not a writer, just because you have 3,259 black-and-white composition books outlining the rules of your fantasy world.  You’re not a writer just because you thought about writing this morning.  You’re not a writer just because you spent the past three weeks editing the same text over and over and over again.  You’re a writer because you write, on a regular basis, adding new words.

3.  Determine the best equipment for you; don’t get overly bound to your equipment.  Figure out how you write best — where, using what hardware, what software, what wetware.  Maximize the potential of your equipment; talk to other writers to find out how they use their tools.  Then, forget all that when your tools aren’t available.  Never let the absence of a tool keep you from telling the story you want to tell (even if that means scratching out notes on the back of a grocery store receipt, before you forget a flash of inspiration.)

4.  Learn grammar rules.  Grammar exists to give shape and form to writing.  Some writing grows by violating the traditional rules — that’s fine, and your writing may blow our minds with its ability to reshape what we’ve previously thought of as fiction or nonfiction or poetry.  In order to succeed at that mind-blowing, though, you have to know why you’re doing what you’re doing, and how it varies from what should be done.  Nothing pulls me out of reading a traditional novel faster than poor grammar for no intended purpose.

5.  Avoid an "establishing shot" to launch your fiction.  You’re not writing a movie script; you’re writing a novel or a short story.  You have precious few words to hook your reader — don’t waste them on the weather, or on the landscape, or on the interregnal history of your ancient fantasy land.  Thing of virtually all prologues as massive, hulking establishing shots, and consider eliminating them (if it’s not important enough to be in the main story, it’s likely not important enough to tantalize a reader, then strand him/her.)  And while we’re on this point, don’t go to the opposite extreme, dumping your reader into a high-stakes, all-or-nothing battle without any sense of who is competing for what or why.

6.  Choose proper nouns carefully.  Proper nouns are some of your strongest anchors for storytelling — they convey huge amounts of information extremely efficiently.  Your readers will have preconceptions if you name your main character William, Guillermo, Bill, or Will.I.Am — use those preconceptions.  (And yes, that might mean turning assumptions on their collective heads – but you-the-author should be in control of that turning, not confused and abandoned readers.)

7.  Earn your SAT words.  Dictionaries and thesauruses are useful tools, and they might point you toward rich, evocative words that are perfect for the story you want to tell.  Use rare words sparingly, though — their power is diluted when they cluster on the page. (And never, ever use a five-dollar word when your point-of-view character has a twenty-five cent tone.  You’ll rip your reader out of your story faster than it will take them to register the meaning of your brilliant vocabulary showhorse.)

8.  Edit out your crutches.  Learn the words that serve as your mental throat-clearing, then eliminate them from the final version of your work.  Figure out which phrases or images you over-use and spare your readers.  (For me, it’s all forms of "to be" as a helping verb, creating similes with "as if", and managing the flow of time with "and then.")

9.  Present yourself professionally.  Figure out how you want to appear to your readers, your agent, your editor, and then craft that online appearance meticulously.  You might be as share-all as  , or as close-mouthed as, er, me, but determine your personal limits and then live by them.  Assume that everything you post, even things posted behind friends-locks, will eventually become public.  Remember that everything you say about your day-job employer, your publisher, and your mother will eventually be read by each of those people, and by thousands of strangers as well.  Own your online persona, and use it to express yourself, supporting your writing. 

10.  Break these rules.    Break these rules and any other, if your story will be stronger for the breaking.  Enjoy what you’re writing, even if it doesn’t fit into the neat box of what is "right" or "good" or "marketable".  But understand the rules that you’re breaking, and be aware of the potential cost for that breakage.

So?  What about you?  Do you agree?  Disagree?  Think that there’s something more important than these ten rules that I should have included?

Mindy, off to enact Rule 2


  1. Number 8 for me–all three of those and a couple more come to mind. I’m working on edits of a manuscript right now…finding the “to be’s” and the “and then.” I figured I was the only one with so many a crutch…

    • I despair, because it’s easy to search for “as if” and “and then”, but the forms of “to be” are too diverse (and too legitimately-present as well…)

  2. Nicely put.

    Re 9, I do have significant limits. You’ll never find the name of my child or my Day Jobbe employer in any public statement of mine, for example. I am extremely conscientious about other people’s boundaries.

    • Point very well taken.

      (For me, the day job boundary was a huge one – heightened by working for litigious day-jobbers…)

  3. good post! I have to save this one in my advice folder

    • ::grin:; I’m glad you found it useful! (Several of my friends are posting these; if you browse through my friends list, you’ll likely find more!)

  4. I love #7. People who continually try to prove to me how clever they are just prove that they don’t know how to tell a story.

    • #7 is near and dear to my heart today, because I killed two *great* words that just made my down-to-earth narrator sound like a pretentious idiot.

  5. These are being shared with my writers’ group tonight – thanks, Mindy! I love them!

    • ::grin::

      So glad I could be of service. I’ll be curious to hear what the writers’ group thinks!

  6. These are great. My #8 is “that”, although I find a fair amount of “really”s, too 🙂

    And maybe the most important thing you said was in #10: enjoy your writing. Because, really, if it doesn’t give you joy–what’s the point?

    • I think that rule-breaking is for fun, but it can also be for the purpose of telling a better story.


      When it’s done for a reason…

  7. Nope, I think you’ve pretty much covered it.

    Though “establish your persona” is one of the main reasons why I’ve chosen to write under a pen name.

  8. I love love love love these … and all the other “rules” that are currently being published. I take something from all of them. thank you for posting yours!