How Do You Know Which Writing Rules to Break?

Writers are no exception to the “artists are rebels” stereotype. We’re rogues and rule breakers—and proud of it, thank you, ma’am. The only teensy little problem we have is that we’re not always certain which writing rules to break. Tongue in cheek, I often say writing has only one rule: Break all the rules.

That’s great fun, as far as it goes. But taken at face value, it won’t get us published or read.

The rules of writing are really more conventions than rules: long-held traditions that have become popular and effective ways of communicating our stories to our readers. There are no Writing Police (gatekeepers aside) who will slap you into cuffs for bucking those traditions, anymore than there’s a guarantee you’ll be published if you obediently follow all the rules. Writing isn’t a dot-to-dot puzzle that must be constructed formulaically. The best of art is all about experimentation and growth–which is why we get to be wild and break a few rules. But which one?

Which Writing Rules Should You Break?

Popular advice says writers should “learn the rules, follow most of them, and break a few.” But which few? Are certain writing rules concrete while others aren’t? Are there certain rules that should be broken? It’s all so confusing. We want to be stand-outwriters. We want to follow enough rules to get past the gatekeepers. But we also want to break the right rules to make our art unique and, yes, think-outside-the-box brilliant.

So when the writing gurus tell you to be brave and break some rules, for crying out loud, which writing rules are they talking about? Because heaven forbid we choose the wrong rule to break and end up in the writer’s equivalent of solitary confinement.

This is where I tell you the million dollar secret. I am about to reveal the answer to this much pondered question. I’m going to unveil the veiled, unmask the masked, and just generally give it to you straight.

The Right Writing Rules to Break

The “right” rules to break depend entirely upon you as a reader.

Think about your own reading experiences. As a highly trained author, you no doubt read with one eye on the plot and the other on the craft. When an author strays from the beaten path and starts taking a baseball bat to the rules/conventions/traditions of the elders, which cracks of that bat make you cringe and which surprise and delight you?

Listen to Your Gut

Trust yourself as a reader—especially if you’ve educated yourself enough to read like a writer. When your gut tells you something works, even if your internal editor starts carping, pay attention.

Likely, the reason whatever authors you’re reading are able to break this particular rule is because they’re doing it purposefully and skillfully—and brilliantly. Just because they’re pulling it off doesn’t mean you’ll be able to run over to your keyboard and be equally rebellious and brilliant. But if you understand and like what they’re doing, don’t be afraid to give it a little experimental whirl.

On the other hand, if your broken rule! broken rule! klaxon starts screaming in the middle of a good book and, instead of invoking an awed How’d they do that?, your gag reflex starts hopping, don’t you dare try to break that same rule in your own writing. Listen to the gut. It’s a better writer than the head. It knows which rules need to be broken to further a story—and which rules, if broken, will only nauseate your readers.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How do you decide which writing rules to break—and which are you adamant about keeping? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I think the most common rule I break on purpose is the no fragmented sentences rule. I’ll also break the comma rule upon occasion and either leave one out or put one in – because that’s the way I want it to read.

  2. The whole idea that writing is structured by rules – anymore than any other art – is a misconception. What it’s structured by is the author’s understanding of the accepted and traditional structures that best convey a story to an audience. Most of the time, these structures are in place because they are the only way to work a story effectively. We have to realize that and tread carefully when going against them. But we also have to realize that the boundaries of story telling are as flexible as we need them to be.

  3. Hey, great question. For me, it’s not so much which rules, as when. 🙂 I think you break a rule when you really, REALLY, understand both the rule and the why behind your choice to go around or away from it. I am working on a YA historical, and I felt at the start that I really wanted to try it in present tense. Since then I’ve read a few published YA historicals written in that tense (yay! and whew!), and I’ve loved them, but I hadn’t seen them at the time. My reason was that I don’t like the distance from the NOW that I read in a lot of historicals (definitely not all) and that I thought writing in present tense might help me with keeping the immediacy. Still open to changing if I think I need to, but loving it so far.

  4. I actually chose to write my recent WIP (also a historical) in the present tense as well. It was a totally new experience for me, but I think it turned out well for both me and the story.

  5. I know that I leave some passive phrases in my MS because I know that’s the way people talk. When I read I am bothered by broken POV rules and too many tags on dialogue so I am careful with those. Fragmented sentences I think are good for building suspense, interest, impact, so I use those. I think you are right about the styles we like to read are often how we write and if that means breaking some rules, then we do. When I read old classics I am amazed….no rules at all!

  6. This is the most important reason for authors to be dedicated and observant readers. We have to be able to see what’s going on behind the scenes in a book and be able to analyze whether it’s working or not – and whether it’s something that would be appropriate for our stories or not.

  7. “What it’s structured by is the author’s understanding of the accepted and traditional structures that best convey a story to an audience.”

    That should be in all caps.

    The point of writing is to tell the story. Your audience has certain expectations. If the point of the story is the plot, then get out of the way – don’t write so that your writing stands out. Follow the conventions for grammar and spelling. Understand your genre and write something similar.

    Generally I write sentences and paragraphs that move the story along, writing so that the writing is invisible. At certain points when the narrator is getting more excited, the writing changes slightly to become more terse; sometimes there are sentence fragments. I’m using the writing to help signal to the reader that the plot is speeding up. I want the reader to know unconsciously that “Hey, this is the place where it’s getting exciting,” but I try very, very hard not to signal this by the mistake of having the narrator tell the reader that this is the exciting part.

    I avoid cute words, unusual words, dramatic writing, poesy, or anything that says “read my words!” I use ordinary vocabulary, but I describe the things missed by ordinary people.

    I don’t use “lambent,” even on a dare.

  8. If breaking a rule is going to draw attention to us as the writer, we’re probably breaking it for all the wrong reasons. The whole point of choosing which rules to follow and which not to and when is dependent on the ultimate goal of giving the reader the most seamless reading experience possible.

  9. As an avid reader I note that best-selling authors break the ‘adverb’ rule all the time (and rightly so, sometimes you just need an adverb) and fragmented sentences rule! Ignore that green line in Word. Especially when the tension is high. Great post.

    Denise

  10. I’ve actually dismantled the Grammar Checker function in Word. It’s just flat-wrong so often, it annoys me more than it helps me.

  11. I often break the no sentence breaks rule, because I write short, action-packed stories.

  12. As with anything, short sentences and fragments can be overdone. But they are useful in their place.

  13. Correct me if I’m wrong (I most likely am, as I haven’t sold yet), but I think the ‘importance’ of following rules in the first instance, aside from learning how it’s ‘supposed to be done’, is really for new writers to convince editors and agents that the new writer has studied the craft and has worked on his/her skills. Once you’ve sold, agents and editors apparently don’t pay too much attention to all those nitpicky rules (adverbs, fragments, etc.) that bestselling and highly talented authors break all the time.

    Am I close to the truth, or very far from it? 😉

  14. Interesting.
    I think I may be a ‘double-agent’ rebel in that I love the rules. I am sure that as I’ve been learning them I’ve become a much better writer. Of course there are probably still some rules that I am still breaking out of ignorance (not a good reason).

    I think this comes from my work life as a programmer. I come from a profession where the rules are absolute. If you break a rule you get a compiler error and your program won’t work. There are some guidelines for best practice (closer to writing rules), but even breaking those is considered a “hack” and leaves you feeling dirty if you break them.

    As a reader, the thing I notice the most is when a writer jumps from one character’s head to another in the same scene. That’s one rule I’ll never break.

    Fragments have always been a worry to me. I’ve always assumed we must write in full sentences, but when it comes to dialogue people often speak in fragments. Maybe I don’t need to worry so much.

  15. I’m a believer that, outside grammar and spelling, there are no rules to writing and that the notion of writing rules is dangerous and destructive to true creativity. Writing rules are usually just tips and tricks. They are tools and methods. They are not things you have to do or even should do. They are things that, if you understand them, you can manipulate at will to achieve certain affects in your story. Sometimes they are simply ways of seeing.

    The story comes first and you do whatever you need to tell the story in the way that is most beautiful to you. Doing anything else, trying to follow “rules”, will only detract from the story.

  16. I must admit that I can’t think of which rule I often break, prefer to break, etc. Sure I’ve used fragments. But I mostly agree with the advice to use your gut. If something feels right, but my internal editor is screaming at me to change it (whatever it is), I simply ignore her. And the more we read and are familiar with both the art and craft of writing, the easier it is for us to recognize potential rule-breaking inspirations.

  17. @Cat: Yes and no. The only time an editor is going to be impressed with a new author breaking the rules is when that author absolutely I knocks his socks off doing it. And that doesn’t happen very often. So, when in doubt, it’s always better to follow the rules. But it’s also important for authors not to get so caught up in following the rules that they stifle their creativity.

    @Adam: Double agent – I love it. I actually tend to be that way too. Chalk it up to OCD or my outliner nature, but I love having a guideline to follow. That’s the way to fly really – so long as you don’t chain yourself to a rule when it isn’t right for a particular story.

    @Sarah: Storytelling, for all the structure it demands, is very much an organic process. The moment we negate that, we to not limit our stories, we also limit the fun we have in creating it

  18. @Pedro: Spot on. Good art results from a combination of smarts and good old instinct. Without either, we’re in trouble.

  19. Hmmmmm, I think I agree with you about “the rules.” I tend to break many of the hard and strict grammar rules I learned in school, depending, of course, on the voice of the character I’m writing. If their voice is slang-y, it’s going to sound different from a proper English gentlemen. It is quite reliant on my gut feeling.

  20. I forget who said it, but I love the quote to the effect that “slang is language in a working man’s clothes.” My characters get to be slangy at every opportunity.

  21. I can’t say I’m much of a rule breaker…yet. I’m still learning, learning, learning, and reinforcing the rules in the first place. But listening to our gut is always great advice.

  22. Nothing wrong with following the rules when they’re working for you. In fact, it’s the best thing we can do most of the time! The *only* time rule following is bad is when it goes against what our artistic sense is telling us is right for a story. The trick is learning how to listen to and decipher that inner story sense. It can be easy to misread it.

  23. What better person to tell the story than yourself especially if you’re passionate about a subject. Rules are there for a reason but when it comes to writing sometimes my fingers go so fast when I’m typing I forget to backtrack and check.

  24. The first draft is no place for the rules. Spit that story out. You can (and should) go back and edit with the rules in mind.

  25. Maybe this isn’t a rule per se, but advice that I’ve heard and broken is having a specific writing space and writing at the same time every day. I just can’t follow this rule! I like to write in different places and at different times of day. This one just doesn’t work for me.

  26. I’m someone who works best on with a set routine and writing time. Staying in the groove is easier for me if I *have* a groove. But this definitely doesn’t work for everyone. Find what works best for you and stick with it – even if it means changing things up every day.

  27. I love to ruthlessly split infinitives

  28. I admit I do too. That’s one of those rules that I break with impunity whenever I feel doing so sounds better.

Trackbacks

  1. […] If you want your story to have a happy ending, but you’re afraid it’ll be labeled “chick lit,” don’t be. There is no wrong way to write a story. Forget about plot point one, climax and denouement. Don’t try to make your story fit a structure, if it so clearly doesn’t. Not sure which writing rules to break? Read this article from K.M.Weiland. […]

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