The Most Hated Writing ‘Rules’

American writer Jonathan Franzen attracted a lot of ire last week over a piece he penned for LitHub entitled ’10 Rules for Novelists.’

It’s his use of the word ‘rules’ that’s got everyone’s goat. If there’s one thing I’ve learned while studying the supposed rules of writing is that there isn’t any. Yes, there are basic laws of grammar, storytelling, dialogue, etc. but beyond, it’s all theory. Time and time again writers have broken established ‘rules’ with brilliant effect. Franzen should have known better.

When somebody suggests such ‘rules’, I see it as their way of offering advice on the practices that have suited them best. Is it arrogant to call them rules? Probably. If you’ve been in this game a while you’ve no doubt seen plenty of these lists of ‘rules’ to understand what they really are. There are no rules, or at least strict, black letter rules.

The danger is for new writers, who in their stage of absorption, can read misleading advice and then grow frustrated down the line when people tell them otherwise. I suppose that’s a lesson in itself, one all writers have to learn: what works for one writer may not work for another.

All this discombobulating has given me an idea: an examination of these rules from the perspective of those ‘bound’ by them, the writers.

What rules do you detest most? What do you find yourself breaking often? What ones do you not see the point of? Which do you regard as outdated and no longer relevant?

What intrigues me most of all is the why. Please share the reasons behind your hatred!

Over the next week, I’ll be conducting polls and posting questions across social media in an effort to see which ‘rules’ are the most hated. Once we have our list, I’ll be seeking to uncover the reasons why.

Your opinions are very much appreciated and valued. The more I get, the more useful this research will be.

21 thoughts on “The Most Hated Writing ‘Rules’”

    1. The best way to explain it is with an example. ‘She was sad,’ is an example of telling. ‘She put her hands over her face, but the tears trickled between her fingers,’ is an example of showing – here the body language reveals the character’s reaction. Oh, and by the way, you can use body language for lots of effects in writing: to replace speech tags is a good use. But you’re absolutely right, there are a lot of people who run workshops and quote this kind of ‘rule’ without bothering to actually explain what it means to less experienced writers. I would question whether these people should even be running workshops (and possibly earning money from them) if they can’t adequately explain what these gems of writing wisdom really mean.

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  1. As a writer I’ve learned to be wary of advice. What works well for one may not work out so well for another. Like if you write contemporary YA the ” rules’ of writing a scifi fantasy will differ greatly. It’s a good idea to pay attention to the writers voice. If it comes across as snobbish, you may want to look for advice elsewhere. It doesn’t matter how they did it. What matters is what works best for you.

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  2. 130 years ago, Anton Chekhov listed six principles for writing a short story.
    https://www.brainpickings.org/2018/10/03/chekhov-6-rules/

    Using Chekhov’s list as a prompt, I recently developed my own list. It begins with the hero’s understanding that “he was holding instructions on how to write the story of his own quest”; halfway through, “she saw that the opposites were indeed true.”
    https://www.cerurove.com/single-post/2018/09/12/Heroic-Mirror-On-Writing

    Every rule can be broken, yes, partly from fortunate accidents, but also partly because deep literary truths are always paradoxes with upside-down meanings and shadow sides and they can be seen from different angles and multiple dimensions. As soon as we say in a literary context, “This is how it is,” we also create the literary possibility that “This is *not* how it is.” Literary genius allows the reader to explore which is most true within the story or within their own lives. A great story raises deep questions. The story can do that explicitly by asking the question outright, but it can also achieve a similar effect within its very structure by bending or breaking established “rules” of story structure that causes the reader to ask, “What is this and what does it mean?”

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  3. The “rules” I dislike the most (or at least the ones that come to mind most readily):

    “Never use adverbs!” So much bad grammar results from trying to avoid adverb-ing, especially adjectives used to modify verbs. Also, not all adverbs end in -ly. Whenever some writer brags, “I never use adverbs,” I want to reply, “You just did.”

    “Show, don’t tell!” (Yes, they do always seem to be shouting when they spout these so-called rules.) I’ve seen some rather extreme examples of this: “Don’t tell us that his car is red; show us.” *rolls eyes* How are we supposed to do that when all we have are the words? Also, telling is sometimes necessary, such as when summing up information that needs to be included in the story but wouldn’t be interesting to read about in full detail: scene transitions, backstory, etc.

    “Don’t use big words! If you use big words at all, you’re just being pretentious and showing off and insulting the reader, and no one wants to read big words anyway.” First, what’s a “big word” to a young child (or Grammarly!) may be a perfectly ordinary word (such as, y’know, ordinary) to a teenager or adult. Second, it’s not being pretentious if the writer is not pretending to be well-educated or to have a large vocabulary. (My own guideline is that any word used — correctly, of course — in the writer’s everyday conversation is not a “big word” when they use it in their fiction. Thus, I can totally get away with using words such as ubiquitous and inevitable, because these are ordinary words for me. I would question whether quotidian was appropriate, however, instead of ordinary, commonplace, or everyday, even though I use that word, too.) Third, how is it “insulting the reader” to assume they’re not ignorant? Isn’t that better than talking down to them? Fourth, some of my favorite words have more than two syllables, and I’m not nobody, so clearly “big words” are not universally despised by people who actually read.

    “Never use passive voice!” *sigh* A lot of what gets called “passive voice” these days isn’t. “It is passive because I don’t like that sentence; it’s not exciting.” Sorry, but how you feeeeeeeellll about it doesn’t change the real definition. (This is probably how it happened: Overworked and harried English teachers, attempting to prevent students from using for-real passive voice, tell them not to use to be verbs at all, because if they avoid is and was, that’ll eliminate most passive voice. Students, misunderstanding or misremembering later, decide that all uses of to be verbs are passive voice. Some of them grow up and become English teachers or internet writing gurus, and they pass on this “wisdom” to others… and the nonsense never ends.)

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  4. I read his rules and some of them I scratched my head at while others I totally agree with. I DO believe in some rules but at the same time, I think some writer’s who go off on limbs just to be different, or to be lazy rip off the reader. The prose should be easy to read, not a chore. The reader should be able to get absorbed in the story without the writing getting in the way, NOT having to second guess, re-read lines, and strain just to keep up with what’s going on. That’s what some of those “stupid” rules are for. I have my own take after 60+ years of reading, listening, and looking at reviews to form my opinions and skills as an editor. These rules don’t just come from a vacuum. The difference between skill and annoyance can be quite fine.

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    1. Great points here, thank you for taking the time to contribute! I scratched my head at a few of his rules too. Odd to say the least. If we can all write so the reader forgets they’re reading then we’ve done our jobs!

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  5. Here’s the long-winded response I posted on my blog: The one that is most troublesome for me is the “don’t ever use passive voice” rule, because it ultimately comes from a misunderstanding of what we use passive voice for in our language.

    The idea that “active voice” sentences are “active” and “passive voice” sentences are not is flawed. If I write “Jim threw the ball” or “the ball was thrown by Jim,” both sentences are equally active. Both show a ball being thrown. The main difference between the two sentences is the subject, and that is the critical point to consider.

    When an editor starts red-lining passive voice sentences in a paragraph, what they often end up doing is replacing a single subject for many, in turn making the passage more convoluted and harder to follow. Here’s an example of a passage which uses passive voice:

    A arrow shot out from the slit in the wall like a bolt of lightning. It was spun around by the wind, hissing as it went. But suddenly it was snatched out of the air by a hound and delivered, unceremoniously, to its intended target. The lost arrow was broken in twain and left on the ground.

    In this example, our subject is “the arrow” and continues to be the subject of the passage throughout. Our focus is directed to the arrow and what happens to the arrow. The use of passive voice is what keeps or attention locked in that way. 

    Now let’s see what the passage looks like after the editor takes a red pen to it:

    A arrow shot out from the slit in the wall like a bolt of lightning. The wind spun it around, making it hiss. It was caught by a hound and delivered, unceremoniously, to its intended target. The man broke the shaft in two and dropped it on the ground. 

    In the above example, we went from one subject to four! The end result is a bland passage that feels disjointed and confused. (This example is, of course, an exaggeration to make a point, not an example of masterwork writing. But I have had interactions with editors in similar ways, which ended up diluting the prose, as above.)

    There is a reason why we use passive voice often in our daily speech. It helps us keep the focus of the moment on a single subject. Few of the writers or editors that rail against the passive voice seem to understand that key point. Like with other rules, they have simply been taught that it’s “bad writing” or that “readers won’t like it,” rather than the idea behind the rule.

    To that end, for me there is really only one “rule” that I think holds up to scrutiny: Always be efficient. Efficiency trumps all.

    This rule captures the important aspects of the “no adverb rule” in that much of bad adverb use is inefficiency, usually poor word choice or redundancy. Same goes for unnecessary narration styles, when using a journal as a plot device or a first-person narrator doesn’t actually add anything to the story. A lot of the writing errors I come across have to do with redundancies: repeated words, repeated descriptions, dialogue tags that are necessary because the tone is convey in the actual speech. Or in the case of Stephen King, entire scenes and chapters that should be chopped off and left for dead. Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. Do it in as few words as possible and those words will be all the better for it.

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    1. You explain this brilliantly and your example makes it all the clearer. Passive voice does help to keep the focus, which is always good for the reader. I’ve seen authors play around with sentence structure to fit more in line with how we all talk today, and I find that it cuts out a lot of the so-called passive words like ‘was’. So instead of linking parts of sentences with these words, cut short the sentence and start another. Colum McCann is great at this. It’s an approach I’m a big fan of. Thank you for contributing in this little bit of research!

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  6. Most of the time, editors, agents, and publishers overcomplicate the issue. Sure, prose should be concise and clear, but at the end of the day, readers mainly care about a good story and interesting characters. Focusing too much on the technical details or rules draws time and creative energy.

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  7. The person who made that comment to Thomas Weaver above about obviously doesn’t understand the principle of this ‘rule’ either – it’s completely irrelevant to use a red car as an example. The relevant material is stuff about characters, relationships, places and so on. (Only include information if it’s necessary for the function of the story.) The idea is to use a ‘strong’ verb to replace adjectives or adverbs, e.g. instead of a flight of stairs being described as ‘high’, use an active form of a verb to show them as being high, such as ‘the stairs ascended towards the ceiling’. Publishers and editors regard adjectives and adverbs as lazy writing – a kind of shorthand to yourself on the first draft. I remember being very confused at a workshop where someone trotted out the old chestnut about removing adverbs and adjectives from work. Someone beside me remarked that their piece no longer made sense, too. I eventually had the chance to ask someone about it in depth (a tutor at university) and received a more satisfactory explanation, including that you couldn’t replace colours (though you might say a car was scarlet or vermilion instead of red) so the ‘rule’ doesn’t really apply to them. That helped me such a lot to understand about this.

    Tucker Lieberman also mentioned above that rules can be turned on their heads effectively. I also have an example of this: in my Orbiter, I received a comment that I shouldn’t refer to a particular character as ‘the politician’, because it effectively puts a barrier between the reader and the character. But this was one of two villains in the story…so I didn’t want the reader to like this character. So I left ‘the politician’ in the text – I deliberately wanted to create a barrier between the reader and this character! So it can be true that it’s how you use these techniques that counts.

    But using these techniques won’t guarantee your book is taken up by a publisher – though you might well feel more satisfied that your writing has improved by using them. Often it depends on what a publisher happens to be looking for at any one time. Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s when the late great Terry Pratchett was first published, every publisher was looking for the next Terry. And it’s pretty soul-destroying when you’ve built up your style and voice over a few years to be asked by a publisher, “Who do you write like?” That happened to me, and I was rather offended. “I write like me,” was my answer. I eventually self-published my books more than 20 years later, having decided not to bother sending them out again. But I do stick to the advice for writers in general, because I do believe it helps produce better writing. Just because I’ve self-published doesn’t mean I should lower my standards or change my style.

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    1. Great points Helen. When it comes to describing people and places I think free reign of adjectives works well. You want to convey how that person or thing looks. There’s no need to make it hard for yourself by restricting what words you can and cannot use.

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  8. We talk of “rules” when “guidelines” is a more correct term. It is important to know such guidelines, in part so that when you deviate from them you are fully aware you are doing so. It is like playing music and deviating from your chose scale. Done accidentally, it will sound awful. Done with careful intent it may sound deliciously novel.

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