The Most Hated Writing ‘Rules’ – The Results

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A couple of weeks ago I began a bit of research in response to the backlash against the ‘10 writing rules for novelists’ by writer Jonathan Franzen. If you’re not familiar with the big hoo-ha, click here for a bit of background.

It was obvious that these so-called rules had touched a nerve with many writers. I wanted to find out why.

So I put the question to writers. I polled writing groups on Facebook and received a total of 199 responses. More individuals shared their thoughts in the comments on my original post.

While this research has its obvious limitations, the results are interesting all the same.

The Results


Number of votes
Use of passive voice 37
There’s rules? 33
Excessive use of adjectives 25
Adverbs 18
Never start a sentence with… 17
Show don’t tell 13
Begin sentences with conjunctions (and, but) 12
Follow these exact rules to the letter or you are a horrible writer and terrible person 11
Flashbacks are a no-no 8
Just let people write how they want 7
The rules are so that weak writers know how not to suck at writing 5
All nevers and alwayses 4
Don’t info dump 3
Jonathan Franzen is an entitled prick and can get bent 😉 2
Not using ‘that’ so much 2
Real writers don’t follow any rules 1
Ending the sentence on a preposition 1
Total Votes 199


Passive voice

Sitting proudly at the peak is the rule against using the passive voice. Ah, the dreaded passive voice. A thorn embedded in my foot that I cannot seem to pull free. It’s one of my more popular articles on my blog, which tells me it pisses other people off too.

Going off my dealings with the passive voice, it can be a tricky area of grammar to fully understand, and that’s not the fault of writers. Much of the day to day language we use is passive. It’s become a natural way to speak. Shaking that conditioning can be tricky. Will passive voice be looked at with less scorn in the years to come?

Let’s see what writers had to say about it:

“Passive voice. I hate the generic “never use passive voice” advice, it’s such bull. Passive voice has a place, it’s just plain lazy to simply avoid it rather than learn it, it’s a tool like any other.” Anni Davison

“Passive voice is definitely the one I struggle with the most, I usually run my articles and books through Hemingway before submitting to try and cut some of it out. It just feels natural to write/talk that way.” Samantha Davis

“I argued with my teachers as a little kid over passive voice. I don’t subscribe to that “rule.” Never did. Who is anyone to tell a writer how to write and craft their own sentence? It’s insane and yes, sometimes it does sound better. Put down the red pen and just read and experience the story.” Laura Jones

“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.” JM Williams

I intend to revisit the passive voice in the coming weeks so keep your eyes peeled.

This article also features in the acclaimed A Fantasy Writers’ Handbook.

4 quotesAvailable now at Amazon!

There’s rules?

There are some rules, one of which is broken by this very suggestion. ‘There are rules?’ This answer touches upon the reasons behind why people got so wound up by Franzen’s list in the first place. If you look further down the list of answers, you’ll notice a few similar ones: ‘follow these exact rules to the letter or you are a horrible writer and terrible person’, ‘just let people write how they want’, ‘Jonathan Franzen is an entitled prick and can get bent ;)’, ‘real writers don’t follow any rules.’ To me, these answers stem from annoyance.

Let’s set the record straight, or as straight as it can be. Beyond the guiding principles of grammar and language, everything else is pretty much fluid. So-called ‘rules’ are forever being broken with brilliant effect. That’s part of the beauty of writing. The creativity. The freedom to work without constraint, to take something old and make it new. So whenever you see someone use the word rule, translate it to mean guideline, technique, idea, advice. Not something set in stone.

What do other writers think?

“I hate rules. Advice is cool. Learn tools and when, how, and why to use them. Strive to be a great writer and write with intention. But don’t let anybody tell you there is some set of rules that dictates good writing and separates it from that bad, ‘cos that’s just bullshit and it’s going to steer you wrong.” Kai Kiet Pieza

“I don’t think it was Franzen’s use of the word “rules” that annoyed people so much as the incredibly stupid advice he gave.” DL Mackenzie. In response, Janette Collins says:

“Honestly I do have a problem with the use of the word rules. Creativity should not be governed by rules.”

“[Franzen] penned this for The Guardian almost a decade ago. In that time he’s also published two novels, two collections of essays and a translation of Karl Kraus’ memoirs. So whether you choose to pour scorn on them or not, they certainly work for him.” Stevie Cherry.

“Know the rules so you know when and how to break them. Then break them with malice. That’s the best writing advice I’ve received.” Mary Caelsto-Lenker

“Thou MUST learn thy rules… that thou mayst know when they may be broken to the greatest effect.” Aaron Gallagher

“I before E except after C has been disproved by science. Outside of that, read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, Rules and guidelines are there to help us write. If they get in the way, let them slip. But if it feels or reads wrong, perhaps a look at the ‘rules’ will help.” Frank Booker

“I liked all 10 rules. If you can’t get over the word “rules” that’s your own problem (not you specifically OP). They’re obviously meant as guidelines, and they’re good and useful guidelines to follow unless you know how and why you’re breaking them.” Bobby Lee

“The 10 rules are exactly what I have learned over the years. None of them are always true, and bending them is a lot of fun. Part of the art of writing is knowing about them and understanding why these guidelines exist, working with them when it helps the prose, and knowing when you don’t have to listen.” Katharine Southworth

To adjective or not to adjective

This seems to be one that’s bandied about quite a lot—refrain from using adjectives. They do you no good. Supposedly.

I’ve looked into this rule quite a bit and what I’ve come to learn is that it refers more to how adjectives are used. Though I’m a believer in maximum freedoms in life, an unchecked use of adjectives does make for a tricky read. But again, that’s not to say you can’t do it. I challenge you to prove me wrong.

Again, adjectives are something I intend to revisit in more detail in the weeks to come.


Adverbs have a similar reputation to that of their cousin, the adjective. I’ve heard many a writer exclaim their annoyance at reading the advice on adverbs in Stephen King’s On Writing only to then read one of his novels and find his story peppered with them.

The answer, I believe, is the same as with adjectives. It’s how you use the adverb.

Never start a sentence with…

I don’t see this thrown about too often, yet it’s scored pretty high on the list. The suggestion ‘begin sentences with conjunctions’ ties into this too.

It’s a ‘rule’ I’m aware of, but having read so many fantastic and award-winning writers who break it consistently I’ve come to see it as obsolete. Bollocks to it. Start a sentence any way you want.

Don’t tell me. Show me

I expected this one to score a little higher on the list due to the number of complaints I see about it. Like some of the other ‘rules’ noted above, it seems to be how you use it. Telling certainly has its place, particularly in shorter stories, but showing the story as if through the eyes of the character has a wonderful impact. What do the writers think?

“People parrot “show don’t tell” nowadays, not seeming to realize that there are parts that SHOULD be told. Otherwise, one’s protagonists just grimace, tremble, shudder, flush and twitch their way through the entire story (which gets tiring as well as ludicrous). And sometimes there IS a third alternative to either ‘telling’ or ‘showing’ — subtext!” Marya Miller

““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?” Thomas Weaver

And what about you? After seeing this list can you think of something you’d add to it? Do you agree with the views of fellow writers? Please comment below. It only adds to the research!

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17 thoughts on “The Most Hated Writing ‘Rules’ – The Results

  1. Connie Parrott says:

    I’ve enjoyed all your articles concerning the writing rules. Especially appreciate your bits of humor that remind us in a kind way to take a deep breath and then go with the flow in our writing.

    I’ve come to realize that the age of the book matters when it comes to all these rules of writing. The books I read and adored 30 and 40 years ago did not seem to wallow in worry about rules. My daughter proved this point recently when she begged me to read one of her favorite novels. (How can you say no to an offspring who’s an avid reader, even though her favorite genre is not yours?) Her favorite author is a female American “icon” with over a hundred books under her fashionable belt. I hunkered down with the book, only to be slammed over the head that this author broke the “show, not tell” rule for 300 pages! Endless pages of “telling” details, extremely long blocks of text with only sparse breaks for dialogue. When I closed the book on her final page, I decided the book was a one-off slip of the writing rules. So I went to Amazon and spent two hours reading the “inside peeks” of numerous books from this writer. Each one was written in the “telling” style. Yet, this author is adored by the masses and is set to release six books so far for 2019. Obviously, the woman established her own style years ago and still reaps rewards from a huge readership.

    So I sit down to my piddling writing attempts, shaking my head at the rules and those breaking the rules. My conclusion? Write for the joy of expressing yourself, first and foremost. Whatever happens after that will be what it is.

    Thanks for always making me think, Richie!

    1. richiebilling says:

      This is a great and highly illustrative tale. Thank you for sharing. Life is change and the same applies to writing. Nobody likes change which is why there’s always resistance when it comes to deviating away from rules. Your conclusion is a great one. I try to remind myself of that as often as possible. Thank you for your lovely comment. I’m delighted to hear you found this useful!

  2. Thomas Weaver says:

    I truly think most of the bad/fake “rules” about writing come from bad teaching. It’s easier to state an absolute “Always…!” or “Never…!” rule (“Never begin a sentence with an -ing word!”) than it is to explain why something may or may not work well. On the other hand, some writers go overboard in rejecting rules: “Avoiding adverbs isn’t a rule of grammar; it’s just personal preferences… and so is whether to capitalize proper nouns, or to use a plural verb with a plural noun, or to use a comma in a compound sentence. Reject All the Rules!”

  3. drfunk81 says:

    I’ve always hated “show don’t tell.” We’re ‘Storytellers’ after all, not ‘Storyshowers’. Right? My personal opinion has always been is to tell your story the way you want and if someone questions your style (beyond grammar checking and spelling) that’s their issue, and not yours.

  4. JM Williams says:

    Wait, “Excessive use of adjectives” was on the list? What? I wonder how does one defend the excessive use of adjectives. Doesn’t the word “excessive” inherently mean too much? 🙂

  5. Cory says:

    I love the concept of learning the “rules” first so you can understand how, when, and why to break them. One “rule” I’ve never liked is punctuation presence regarding quotations, as in whether to place punctuation before or after the quotation mark. I usually ignore that “rule”, myself.

  6. Beedoo! says:

    People bray “Show, don’t tell!” like it explains anything. It is, in fact, in violation of itself… telling, but not showing. Good fucking job on that one, “writers”! What they mean is to describe the scene, paint a picture in your reader’s mind rather than just saying her eyes were blue. Say they looked like Caribbean pools you could see clear to the bottom of…(also, hey, no adjectives) Or don’t… Sometimes the car being red is enough information. Sometimes, we don’t need to know that at all. Sometimes it’s an insight to the owner’s character, sometimes it’s not. Picking relevant details to expand on is also an important tool in the box.

  7. Phil Cobb says:

    Following rules such as “show don’t tell” and “death to adverbs” probably will help with getting an agent and a traditional publisher who espouse those rules.

    After that, if you make big money for the publisher, then you can do whatever you want — like Stephen King who doesn’t follow his own prohibition against adverbs.

  8. Energyflux2012 says:

    My least favorite rule is the use of italics. I’ve seen great writers like Brandon Sanderson use italics for character thoughts and other writers for things like telepathy. Yet, traditionalists hate on the use of italics so much. There’s nothing wrong with italics if it’s used well.

    1. richiebilling says:

      I love using italics. I think every story I’ve ever written has had them in. Bollocks to the traditionalists!

    2. ravenshellrorschach says:

      There’s some things that you just can’t do with quotes alone. Italicizing for internal dialogue or telepathy is quite normal. What are we supposed to use to indicate that? Bold?? That would be ridiculous, distracting, and ugly. As it is, I have characters who do interact telepathically, but there’s an under-layer of thought that sometimes comes through, and I have to express that with double parentheses and italics to set it off, because not everything responds to putting things in smaller or different fonts, nor do readers necessarily instinctively pick up on such oddities.

  9. Donahue B. Silvis says:

    What about stilted prose, defined as dignified, formal or pompous?
    I received an email stating my novel The Deadly Puzzle is turned down as some of my writing’s stilted.
    I’ve read, as long as you use stilted prose in moderation, it can work in any genre.
    Sometime people speak in an awkward, unnatural way.
    Donahue Silvis

    1. ravenshellrorschach says:

      Maybe it doesn’t seem intentional enough, or it reads so stiltedly that you have to really slow down to read it… you don’t want people to stumble over your writing while they’re trying to suss out the right way to read it… you’ll start losing their attention or distracting them.

  10. averyteoda says:

    As a writing teacher, I think about this a lot. I teach mostly non-native speakers of English, and I’ve boiled down my absolute rules to clarity. That applies to creative writing, too. Can the reader understand what you’re saying? Great. That’s what counts. Is there a stronger way to say it? You should probably go for that too. But so many “rules” can be broken stylistically and work out well. I have characters whose narrative tends to use more passive voice, and some that use less.

    I do think that learning what the basic structures are (what passive voice use, the difference between showing vs. telling) is important so you can make informed choices in your writing, but most of those rules aren’t actually rules.

    1. richiebilling says:

      Great point! Clarity reigns supreme. One of Orwell’s famous ‘rules’. I’m with you on learning the basics too. You can’t build a house without foundations!


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