The Most Important Rule for Writing – Be True to Yourself

This guest post is by Bryan Thomas Schmidt.

If you’re a writer or trying to be, you’re probably already aware that one of the most-covered topics on the Internet is rules for writing. Everybody’s got their favorites. Everybody’s got their necessities. The funny thing is no one’s absolutely right and yet no one’s absolutely wrong. Glad I cleared that up, aren’t you? Some of the rules even contradict each other.  And some seem more aimed at stalling creativity than aiding it. So what is one to do about all these rules and conflicting information? How do you know what to take seriously and what to toss aside or ignore for the moment?

Wanna know what the most important rule for writing is?

Oh no! Not another rule!

Just wait.

Are you ready?

Be true to yourself.

Yep, that was it.

Good writing rules?

Before I explain that, let’s examine the rules first. Writing rules are based on a number of factors. Some are common sense: Always Read Guidelines Before Submitting Your Story Or Novel. This is one rule that everyone should follow.

Another example: If You Want To Succeed At Writing, You Must Treat It Like A Career. Well, this is common sense, too: You shouldn’t treat like a career by quitting day jobs and putting eight hour days until it actually comes true. Not unless you have the savings to afford to do it, and even then, it’s a big risk because most writers work day jobs, in fact. Even
bestselling ones. Instead, what this means is that you should plan your writing time as work time and treat it accordingly. Just like hours at a job, you should have set writing hours, a writing space, and a commitment to fulfilling your writerly duties, whatever your goals may be. That’s a businesslike approach. You should submit stories regularly to both beta readers or critique groups and then, once refined, to markets. Treat it the same way you would the work you do for a paying job. That’s the way to succeed.

Bad writing rules?

Now let’s take a look at at rule that’s based more on preference: Writing Eight Hours A Day Is The Only Way To Succeed. Or what about: The Only Way To Write Well Is To Research First Until You’re An Expert, Then Write. 

Anytime you see someone saying “the only way to,” assume it’s really personal preference, because that’s almost always the case. But there are others.

Write What You Know” is good advice and can be helpful but sometimes people write about things they don’t know much about and are quite successful. In my story “La Migra,” coming out in the summer issue of Tales of the Talisman magazine, I wrote about a Border Patrol agent. I wrote it and guessed at much of the official dialogue and radio codes used, then sent it to my BP agent friend to help revise so it sounded the way it should. He hardly changed anything. Instead, he said, you nailed it. But I had never been around BP agents on the job once in my life. I guessed. I got lucky, but it happens.

Never Write More Than Two Point Of View Characters In A Short Story or Five in A Novel.” Has anyone read George R.R. Martin’s popular A Song of Ice and Fire novels? GRRM uses a lot more than five and does it well.

These types of rules tend to cause the most confusion.

The fact is there’s not just one way to write. People break the rules all the time. And the way to earn that right is to break the rules so well that the reasons behind the rules become inapplicable. For example, the rule about multiple POV characters is based on the idea that readers need a common connection with characters and that a story with too many POVs will not only lack a strong connection and identification with any particular character, but will also lose focus. Readers may not like all of George R.R. Martin’s POV characters,  but identifying them as individuals and relating to them as human is hardly an issue. Neither is lack of a focused storyline. When you do it well, the rules don’t apply.

Which rules should you follow?

This is why my number one rule of writing is: Be True To Yourself. No matter the tools taught, the theories posited, or the rules laid forth, you can’t write well unless you write in the way most productive and effective for you. Any rule or tool that blocks you from succeeding is something you should set aside and reconsider. Is it stopping you from getting the job done?

It’s not that the rules aren’t valuable. It’s not that you should forget them altogether. It’s that it does you no good to get stuck on restrictions or guidelines which you can’t apply to your own work. All it does, instead, is create frustration, discouragement, and a block to creativity. You can’t grow as writers unless you write. Anything that blocks your writing is really a hindrance to your growth and success.

Those rules and concepts may work for others. Some day they may work for you. In truth, a lot of them probably will. But you can’t apply them until you’re ready and you shouldn’t frustrate yourself by trying. It’s far more important to be productive creatively. After all, if you never write anything, there’s nothing to examine and learn from. And if you’re not learning how to improve, the journey is over. What’s the point?

Create your own rulebook

Being True To Yourself means creating your own rulebook. Consider all the advice offered but choose carefully what to include in your toolbox and what to lay by the wayside to be discarded or picked up later when it’s of use. Being True To Yourself means figuring out the best way of writing for you and knowing that, while it may differ from every other writer you know, the goal is to successfully tell stories and get words on the page. Only things that further that task have any value at the moment. Everything else is a potential obstacle and you won’t need help gathering obstacles. Plenty will find you on your own.

Being True To Yourself means embracing the self-discovery of the writer’s life and journey as you discover and rediscover how you can be at your best and do your best work without regard for how anyone else does it. Respect your unique creative self and your individualism.

You want a “the only way statement” that I take seriously? The only way to write is the way that works best for you and allows you to be most productive. You find that by Being True To Yourself and letting everything else go.

So next time you hear someone positing the Absolute Must rules of writing or something similar, remember their must list doesn’t have to be your own. Be True To Yourself as you consider what they have to say. Use what you can, let go of the rest, and get back to writing. That’s the only goal that matters in the end.

About the Author: Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & NobleBook Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention and several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the anthology SpaceBattles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. He can be found on Twitter or via his website.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever limited your writing with someone elses Absolute Must rules?

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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. Thanks so much for being here today, Bryan, and sharing some important thoughts!

  2. I am a newbie to the writing world and sometimes fall into the trap of “the correct way to write a story”. It is frustrating and confusing with all the information that is on the web. After reading this article, I will now do it my way…thanks for the great read.

  3. My pleasure, KM. Thanks for inviting me!

  4. This is a great article. I don’t usually read how to write articles but this is exactly my feelings on writing. Thanks for the affirmation that I am, in fact, doing it right!

  5. Great article. I did try to follow someone else’s method/rules for quite some time, until I realised that was what was killing my creativity. Now I pick and choose what rules to follow, based on what allows me to stay creative whilst producing (I hope!) good words.

  6. This was an excellent article! Thank you KM and Bryan. I’ve been so stuck in the ‘do’s and don’ts’ for months now, which has stalled my editing process like crazy. If I keep up this way, my manuscript will never be ‘ready for primetime.’

  7. I love the Be True to Yourself Rule. I like to read other peoples rules and advice, but I take them all with a gain of salt. Right now I am reading Naked, Drunk and Writing (which is not, btw, about being physically naked or drunk,) and learning a lot. Rules can help define a craft, and then can be bent to transform a piece into art.

  8. Bryan, this advice always works for me, and it’s what I teach in my presentations. Thanks for the validation and for adding a little common sense to this crazy need we have for rules. As a creativity coach, I applaud both you and KM for this post!

  9. We all learn at a different pace. Some master one element of craft or technique early, others struggle with it their whole journey. But I think the key is to keep looking at how you can improve and use anything that helps. If you’re not ready for it or an approach doesn’t work, it’s okay to give yourself a pass, just don’t rule it out forever. You never know. Anyway, thanks all for your comments and for stopping in. Glad it’s helpful.

  10. Rules…Rules?! We don’t need no stinkin’ rules…okay I’m joking.
    Each ‘rule’ I come across, I take with a grain of salt (no lime& tequila).

    Best rule I’ve found: read lots on the writing craft, write like there’s no one looking over your shoulder, put butt in chair, find a good critique person (group).

  11. That “be true to yourself” rule is great. Fits right in alongside “No one knows the rules for writing a novel” and “You need three things to write a novel, but one or two can work on occasion.” (My paraphrases of pithy quotes)

  12. I’m a rule follower. Always have been. Never smoked, never cussed, cuz my mom told me not to. Still don’t. So when it comes to writing, I’m comfortable following the rules. I like my box. LOL. Oddly enough, I admire other writers who break them. They’re my heroes. 🙂

  13. I just read one that said, “Never use italics” but I tend to use them to segregate the character’s thoughts from the narrative without having to say over and over again,”—-“, he thought or she thought which reads like dialog.

  14. I honestly dont mind italics:) but otherwise fantastic advice as always

  15. Terrific Article.
    Be true to yourself is the one “rule” to always follow.

  16. The Italics rule is not one I’m familiar with. I do know that the majority of editors will ask for Italicized words to be underlined instead in final manuscripts because InDesign, which is standard for book formatting, reads them that way. I use Italics for character’s thoughts at times and also occasionally for emphasis. No one’s ever told me not to and I’ve got several books out now. Especially with formatting rules, they tend to be fluent based on personal preference. Double spacing after periods is still my habit but it’s rarely a requirement anymore. Thanks all for reading and for the great comments!

  17. Agree with Kris – love italics for direct thoughts and such. (deaf characters signing, etc.)

    Great post! Agree. Though a lot of rules are important to follow if you’re going to write good fiction, you can’t take everything you read as gospel. If it works for your writing process or works for your story, then do it.

  18. This reminds me of the golden rule they teach in school, you know, do unto others… It’s kind of the all-encompassing rule. If it feels right and does no harm, then it’s okay. I kind of like approaching my writing like that. It’s liberating. If I’m not so worried about whether I’m allowed to use a semi colon or whether I’ve head-hopped too many times, the words seem to flow a lot better. I can always go back and edit if it doesn’t work later, right? Chances are, if I am free to write how I’m comfortable, I’ll have fewer issues to correct because the plot will have shaped itself. Thanks for the “permission” to let go.

  19. I watch Game of Thrones, but couldn’t read the books actually because I hated that many different viewpoints. J.R. Ward is an author who writes with a bunch of different viewpoints in her novel, but does it well, in my opinion.

  20. Hi Bryan and K.M,

    I love, love, love this blog because the advice is just so sensible! Whenever I am reading through rules or just generally anything on the Internet I always take everything with a pinch of salt. How you deal with your life is up to you.

  21. Thank you! I’ve been saying this on my blog for a while. I published my first novel late last year. I ignored a lot of “rules” and it has done well. I cringe when I see talented friends stalled in their writing because they are trying to follow the various rules out there.

  22. Thank God I haven’t done that. I experiment with many of them, but only apply which I feel comfortable. For example, I had realized earlier that word count goal is not my thing. So, even though many writers talked about its importance, I didn’t practiced it. And, I find it hard to have only one particular time to write. So I make a habit of writing 2.30 hours everyday. No matter what the time is. (Usually 9-11.30 AM)

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