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I’ll go ahead and confess right now that these are none of my favorite words. As soon as someone precedes any advice or instruction with one of these proscriptions, I start thinking about how I might get around them, or exceptions, or how I can do the exact opposite thing just to show that no one is the boss of me.
And yet, conversely, many times I have described myself as a rule follower. I was the “good kid”–the one who did the homework, got the grades, made few waves, and was often a teacher’s pet.
I had detention one time in my entire scholarly life, for allegedly throwing a few grains of rice during a science experiment in high school chemistry, a crime I felt did not fit the punishment and that Mr. White the chemistry teacher vastly overreacted to, and do I still carry a gentle grudge to this day? Yes, I do.
And yet I still always wanted to stray a little outside the guardrails. Being the good kid came with benefits in that regard. I got a lot of freedom from teachers and administrators to do things like make the morning announcements at our school, and take artistic license with how they were presented. One of my favorite teachers, Mr. Hullander the art teacher, once gave me a hall pass that literally read, “Tiffany can go anywhere she wants to.”
Reader, I did.
Generally I like to find ways to walk my own path, but ones that don’t veer too far off of tried-and-true routes. I understand and appreciate the benefits of benefiting from others’ experiences, successes, and missteps—but I still like to exercise a little creative license in my own choices.
When to Ignore the “Don’ts” of Writing Advice
I’ve been thinking about this proclivity lately in response to writing advice that rigidly sets out boundaries for authors:
- “Don’t use adjectives or adverbs.”
- “You shouldn’t use semicolons because they seem pretentious.”
- “You can’t sell a book with a prologue.”
- “Don’t try writing multiple points of view or multiple timelines with your first full-length manuscript….”
The list is long, and I’m betting you can fill in many others you’ve heard.
So many of these absolute “rules” wind up fettering an author’s creativity and voice. It’s a main reason why I always use the word in quotes—including throughout my book Intuitive Editing. And quite often, these rules and injunctions aren’t valid or useful constrictions anyway:
- Descriptive words like adjectives and adverbs can add great color and depth to your story.
- Punctuation—all punctuation—is designed to aid in guiding readers fluidly through your story and to clarify meaning, and stratifying it is a ridiculous affectation.
- Good prologues rock and can powerfully set up an entire story.
- And any creative art should be about stretching your abilities in areas that are difficult and perhaps just beyond your current skills—like multiple storylines; otherwise how do we grow as artists?
The “rules” of writing can so often strap you down or cram you into a mold that simply isn’t right for every author, every story, every circumstance. Finding your style and voice and the most effective approach to your writing means discovering what works best for you.
Read more: “F*** the Cat”
When to Consider the “Don’ts”
And yet, like the experiences of others that can help save us from unnecessary pain, some of these negative prohibitions may help you write a better story or reach your readers more effectively.
For example, that oft-repeated advice not to corner an agent or editor in a bathroom stall and vomit your entire plot upon them? Solid.
Don’t start your story with a dream or your character waking up? Pretty good advice, given that many agents and editors will immediately tune out upon encountering yet another iteration of a device that has become a tired cliché.
Still other proscriptions aren’t nearly as black-and-white as they may be presented:
- “You shouldn’t head-hop in stories, because it makes readers doubt the author’s authority and feel as if they have uncertain footing in the story.” Yet watch Kevin Kwan rampantly do just that and rake in the millions.
- “Authors shouldn’t write outside of their lived experience, because it may be perceived as cultural appropriation and make your book harder to sell.” Yet a world of every author writing from only their narrow personal lives would be artistically barren indeed for both creator and audience.
The truth is, life (and art) is often made up of a firehose of dos and don’ts streaming at us nonstop. Much of it is well-meant, a lot of it is probably hard-won by the advice giver, and the best of it is even quite likely to benefit you, as a writer and as a human being.
But as a creative (and as a human being), it’s also our nature to have to find out for ourselves, to varying degrees.
Read more: “The Great and Terrible Power of ‘No’ in Your Writing”
Choose the “Rules” You Want to Break
Maybe you’re a mostly rule-following but partial maverick, like I am. Maybe you’re a by-the-book straight arrow. Maybe you’re a complete renegade, eschewing all rules to forge your own path through the underbrush. It’s all valid, and it’s all right if it’s right for you.
You may make mistakes. Seemingly stupid ones. Even major ones. Hopefully none you can’t recover from. And in the process of that recovery, you will learn and grow. You will increase the experiences you have to draw on in the future, your knowledge, and your skill. And no lessons are as deeply learned as those from direct experience.
You may find in trying to write a multiple-POV novel that you have created a complete hash of a story and have 200,000 words of unusable manuscript. But is it wasted? No. You’ve learned, to paraphrase Edison, one of plenty of ways not to write a successful multiple-POV story, and you won’t make that mistake again.
Maybe it has shown you another approach that might work better. Maybe it has helped you move the ball down the field just one yard line, but you’ll try again with the next manuscript, and the next, and the next, and pretty soon you’ll be writing War and Peace.
Or maybe you’ll just wind up with a file full of harvest material that could find its way into other stories. You don’t know yet, and you may not know for a long time. But nothing is wasted—no effort we make, no experience we have, no lesson we learn. Some of my most valuable experiences—in writing and in life—have been my “failures.” They are—almost without exception—the precursor to and often the reason for my successes.
Read more: “Leave Me Alone—I Know What I’m Doing”
So the next time some “writing expert” tells you “don’t do this,” “you can’t try that,” “you shouldn’t do this other thing,” nod and thank them for their insight.
And then, if you really want to try that thing for yourself, do it anyway.
You may fail spectacularly and get knocked to the mat—but as long as you get up again…and again…and again, you’re never down for the count.
Or you may succeed spectacularly and blaze a trail no one has yet walked. Being an artist, being a vibrant living being, means letting yourself experiment and try and live fully, and failure isn’t the end. It’s just a new beginning.
(But do trust us on the bathroom thing.)
How about you, authors—what are some of the proscriptions you’ve heard—and perhaps internalized—about writing or creative efforts? How has it served you, if it has—or how has it hampered you?
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