Sorting Through Writing Advice: Don’t, Can’t, Shouldn’t

Sorting Through Writing Advice: Don't, Can't, Shouldn't

Sorting Through Writing Advice: Don’t, Can’t, Shouldn’t

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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….”

So many of the “rules” of writing wind up fettering an author’s creativity and voice. And quite often, these rules and injunctions aren’t valid or useful constrictions anyway.

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.

Nothing is wasted—no effort we make, no experience we have, no lesson we learn.

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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22 Comments. Leave new

  • Greet Vanlaer
    August 31, 2023 1:54 pm

    Dear Tiffany,
    I may not be a very loyal reader of your blogs, but when I open one I am always amazed at how true it is what you write. Like now. For many years I was a member of a writing group, a very fine group, a mixture of published authors and poets, and unpublished authors. It was a pleasure for me to participate in the meetings all these years, and yet… I tended to listen too much to the do’s and don’ts, because now that I read back my manuscripts I see that I have a sort of middle ground to meet the norms of the group members. Only, it wasn’t my standards. I don’t find myself in the style I used at the time. Now, after five years of ‘silence’, I have started writing again, and I don’t care at all about the do’s and don’ts. My writing pleasure is back, and apparently I write in my ‘own style’. There is life back in what I write. I learned a lot during my time with the writing group. Especially what worked and what didn’t work for me.
    best regards,
    Greet Vanlaer

    • Greet Vanlaer
      August 31, 2023 4:40 pm

      Sorry, I think google translate made a terrible translation this time (from Dutch to English). I realize it now that I read it. But I suppose you got the point.

    • Hi, Greet–it’s always lovely to see you here when you stop by, and thanks for the kind word.

      Writing groups can be such a mixed blessing-you can learn so much from them, both helpful and less helpful. Good ones can offer wonderful support and insight; bad ones can do great damage to an author’s writing and psyche. And as you point out, the danger is always homogenizing our work to please all palates, or trying to follow the “rules” and do it “right” and stripping away our originality and voice and style. Like everything else in a subjective art, the author has to decide when it’s useful to be part of a group and when it may not be.

      I’m so glad to hear you’re writing again, and finding it more fun and more vibrant. That’s so important to our enjoyment of our work, and being able to sustain it, I think. Thanks for sharing!

  • Maryann Kovalski
    August 31, 2023 2:30 pm

    Love this article. Agree with so much, but there is some wisdom in ‘know the rules before you break them’. I know why they advise adverbs to be used carefully 🙂 They can totally, even if unfairly, identify a novice writer. However, when used in comedy and satire (thinking the great UK writer Edward St. Aubyn) they can be very effective for deadpan dialogue.

    I think rules can sometimes give us a form, a template, to work within to give us confidence rather than hamstring.

    And Greet, I do know what you mean about groups. They can serve a purpose, but can hold us back. I’m grateful to the group I belonged to, and also grateful I’ve left. I’m far more productive. I can take an idea and run with it through all its awkwardness to arrive at something promising. In a group, that awkward idea might be shot down and never find its truth.

    But holy #@^*! I forgot about the good advice to avoid opening with a character waking up! I’ve done it! I’m formulating my query letters but now back at the drawing board, cutting!

    • Greet Vanlaer
      August 31, 2023 4:42 pm

      Totally agree with you, Maryann. Very recognizable what you write.

    • Totally! I was thinking that the only reason I was able to break so many “rules” in high school is because I mostly followed them, or at least knew what they were well enough to find the workarounds. 🙂 There’s a balance to be struck in learning the tenets of good writing, and freeing yourself to experiment and stretch, I think. And yes, so often it’s subjective as far as what’s working and what’s not–as far as author style, reader preference, even mood.

      Also, I think it’s funny that several writers commented here that they realized they had a character waking up at the beginning. See–it’s SO common…! 😀 And rarely the most effective, hooky way to start a story, from my experience. Thanks for stopping by, Maryann!

  • Tiffany,
    Sorry, but I love that rice-throwing episode. You delinquent, you. (And what a succinct way to characterize your younger self!)
    I truly appreciate your advice to ignore the legion of people all over the internet ready to arrest any writer–who’s always white– with the gall to write “outside of their lived experience.” It’s fiction, for Pete’s sake. Was Kafka ever a cockroach? I was foolish enough to obsess over advice from writer friends telling me to hire sensitivity readers for my novel, but came to my senses. You really do need to trust yourself on some things. The trick is knowing which things-and life usually clues you in there.

    • Wasn’t I a wild child…? 😉

      I agree that authors should feel free to stretch into other characters and experiences–but I will say I am a HUGE proponent of authenticity/sensitivity readers. It doesn’t matter how well we may think we understand a character outside our lived experience–if it’s not our own, there are SO many ways it can come across badly and hamper your story and reader reaction. It’s incumbent on us as artists to do our research, and also, in my opinion, to be mindful of what we’re putting into the world, for instance in what stereotypes we might be perpetuating, or how we might inadvertently fall into offensive tropes or mischaracterizations. Making sure to have readers who have firsthand experience of a certain area is no different from going to an expert for accurate info on a plot point–it’s all research that good authors do to make their work fuller, richer, and more real.

      It’s also the safety net that allows us to stretch and take those risks in writing broader than our own narrow life experience, knowing that we will have someone help us catch any missteps.

      Thanks for furthering the conversation, Nan!

  • I’m sitting here chuckling as I write this comment, because while I would never corner an agent in a bathroom, I’m absolutely writing a novel where the opening scene is a character waking up from a dream. BUT–I’m writing an epic fantasy series where the POV characters are dreamseers, and that magical superpower is essentially the plot’s power engine, from the inciting incident all the way to the series’ climax. If a reader (or heaven forbid, an agent) doesn’t like the opening scene, they probably aren’t going to like the rest of my story, either. So call me cliche, but for purposes of this particular story, I’m delighted to disregard that particular “rule.”

    Anyhow, I used to teach legal writing to law students (a type of writing that’s so rule-bound it’s like living in a straightjacket), and the longer I taught it, the more I realized the rules contained just as many exceptions as nuggets of wisdom, at least in the long-term. The rules were the most helpful to inexperienced writers who wouldn’t have been able to draft a coherent argument without them, but the most effective legal writers I knew were the ones who molded the template to suit their own needs and style. I guess I’ve tried to take that same approach to fiction-writing, too–the rules can serve as tools, to help you evaluate whether a particular approach suits your story, and if you’re breaking a well-established rule, it’s worth asking yourself why. But the story (or in the lawyer’s case, the argument) ALWAYS comes first–and to the extent a rule would compromise or weaken that story, then it’s better to follow the story itself.

    Also, Tiffany, I had another chuckle when I read that your high school chemistry teacher was named “Mr. White”–surely this is a Breaking Bad joke. 😉

    • Ha…there’s a reason it’s a cliche and agent dislike it! 🙂 But you illustrate the point of the post so well–every situation is different, and authors have to let themselves have the freedom to try, stretch, experiment, break the “rules.” It sounds like you’re doing it deliberately and for an intrinsic, relevant story reason…so go forth. 🙂

      Love your law-school analogy. Even in a field as seemingly fact-based as the law, its illuminating to see how much is subject to interpretation and gray area–and that the “rules” always have multiple exceptions. That’s why I’m so skeptical of writing dogma or prescribed systems–every author is different, every story, and we have to find what works for us. And for every “rule,” someone has broken it spectacularly and succeeded. They’re great guidelines/foundations, but creativity demands creative freedom. 🙂

      I am likely the sole person who hasn’t yet seen Breaking Bad (I heard it’s violent, and I’m a big baby). Sounds like it might hit a painful high school nerve for me though… 😉

      Thanks for stopping by, Court!

      • Thank you for your response, Tiffany–I always appreciate how insightful and thoughtful you are on this blog, which has long been one my favorite writing resources. 🙂

        I also love your reframing of “rules” as guidelines–when it comes to creativity, the distance between those two concepts really is the difference between fear and freedom.

        • Thanks, Court! I love the way you sum it up–the difference between fear and freedom. I focus a lot on striving for more of the latter–likely one reason I eschew rigid adherence to the “rules” of writing.

  • Maryann Kovalski
    August 31, 2023 4:37 pm

    I also laughed at chemistry teacher Mr. White!

    The thing is, a yet-to-be published writer is up against a lot of assumptions on the part of exhausted agents who have to plough through hundreds of poorly written work. And the present publishing climate has them, no doubt, full of fear themselves.

    The unpublished writer hasn’t built up the credibility of the successful multi-published writer who has more latitude.

    Last month I finished a novel by a writer I love, but on this one I still scratch my head. How did she get away with this? I supposed she earned it.

    I do believe my book is worthy of an agent’s read, but if it opens with what is perceived as a no-no, I’d hate for it to stop an agent from reading further.

    So I just went back and cut out the first two paragraphs of my novel and I think nothing was lost. The setting is still morning, but it starts the action with much more life. Amazing.

    So I’m not sure where I stand on the rule fence, except that we yet-to-be authors must do everything we can to get agents to read our first paragraph and then our first page.

  • This is an important topic. Would you consider turning it into a webinar? I feel like I’ve learned so much over the years, and sorting through all the advice is daunting. It brings up doubt as I write. The more I know, the slower I type. I’m trying to shut out all the other noise and concentrate on the one piece of advice I heard recently: Thou shall not bore. 🙂

    • Ooh, that’s such an interesting idea, Cate–I’m jotting it in my “future presentations” file. I like the idea of talking about how to handle feedback, how to know what to take what to toss, and what “rules” to follow and which to gently ignore. Thanks!

    • Also, “Thou shalt not bore” is hilarious. No doubt the original biblical source of Elmore Leonard’s “leave out the parts people tend to skip.” 😉

  • Hi Tiffany

    Thanks for this week’s advice about Don’t, Can’t, and Shouldn’t. I’d like to comment on two of those quoted comments.

    • “Don’t try writing multiple points of view or multiple timelines with your first full-length manuscript….”
    o Yes, good advice. Writing two or more POVs and timelines is hard. But if, on your first effort, you limit what you try, you may not know the extent of what you can do. I have been involved with many projects (not just writing) where in retrospect I think, “Had I only known how hard that was…. I never would have started.” But I did, and with the help of others, often succeeded, learning along the way. What a loss not to try. Thank you!

    • “ ‘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.”
    • I agree with you. It is humbling to write about a different culture, even one you have experienced and lived in. I approach this will a great deal of humility and respect, hoping I have reflected what I learned, and seeking input from those in that culture, to better learn about the culture, so I can attempt to portray it to others who have not been there.
    • I only hope that agents, editors, and reviewers will share your sensibilities when authors try to capture with reverence and authenticity, from watching, listening, and experiencing, the other culture.
    • Thanks for reading.

    • Love this feedback, Peter, and your take on these dictums. I couldn’t agree more about letting yourself try things as a writer. The consequences for failing are usually zero (unless you’re up against a raging deadline and can’t bring something together in time when trying something stretchy). And usually they result, as you say, in growth as an artist. I very often let my grasp exceed my reach juuuuust a little in my work, taking on things I’m not 100 percent sure I can nail, but I find that if I have faith that what I don’t know, I can figure out, I almost always do. And I gain skill and knowledge and experience as a result.

      It’s also exhilarating in the way that a roller coaster is–you wonder, terrified, what the hell you were doing getting on the thing as you creep up the incline, but then, MAN, the ride is usually a rush. (If you don’t vomit.)

      And I come down where you do on writing outside our own norms–both in letting ourselves do it, and making sure to do it with all the knowledge and insight and mindful respect that we can. I also hope editors/publishers may move away from what has seemed a pretty strict groove on that recently, and back to more artistic freedom of expression and exploration. I think so many needed changes sometimes overcorrect at first–publishing needed to open up and be more cognizant of authenticity and inclusion, but I hope we’re moving in that direction.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments!

  • Thanks, Tiffany. Found you through Agent Pete’s Litopia and Pop-Up Submissions. Enjoying your contributions!


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