When “Rules” Hurt Your Voice

Having started spending some time on WordPress, it has come to my attention that there are several blogs which like to occasionally post about the “rules” of writing that every writer should follow. I have no problem with the idea of set rules for writing—after all, I am a stalwart supporter of proper grammar—but there are some cases where these “rules” hurt or detract from your writing voice. So my biggest rule for writing rules is that no rule should rule your writing (did that make your head hurt too?)

If you Google search “rules for writing,” one of the top links you may be given is related to Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing. To be fair, I have never read the full work, and he may very well include a caveat tackling the very issue I raise now, but either way I’m going to use him as a sort of sacrificial lamb here. Also note that I have no opinion of Mr. Leonard as an author, so please do not misconstrue this is a personal attack.

Anyway, here are the 10 rules for writing, according to Mr. Leonard, based on an article by The Guardian:

  1. Never open a book with weather
  2. Avoid prologues
  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose
  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”
  7. Use regional dialect sparingly
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things
  10. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them
  11. My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

One reason I chose Mr. Leonard’s rules is also because I see a lot of these repeated in other sets of rules. No adverbs, only use “said,” and avoid heavy detail should all be fairly recognizable to other writers who are familiar with these lists. My response to these rules, or any rule of writing for that matter, is, “But what if I want to?” What if I like long, florid descriptions of characters and places? What if I think adverbs are fun and exist for a reason? What if I, as a writer, get bored with constantly saying the word “said” and want to use “he droned” or some other dialogue tag? And I can tell all of you right now that I very much enjoy using prologues!

Unless you are writing strictly to make money (ha!), then the person you should be writing for is you. Every writer has their own voice, whether it is of Hemingway brevity or Hugo eloquence, and that voice should be used with pride. Further down the line, editors or publishers may try to change certain aspects of your writing, but hopefully they chose to work with you because they already like what you bring to the table.

Don’t get me wrong, you need to be humble and willing to accept critique when given. And there are rules for writing which are good to follow: read it aloud to yourself; have someone else read it; if you’re lost, retrace your steps to where you went wrong; be fluid and don’t anchor yourself to an idea if it isn’t working; reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite, repeat. Things that are more akin to advice than rules should be taken happily. But especially early on in the writing process, or when it comes to stylistic choice, keep in mind that writing is an art. Do not allow your art to be censored because of another artist’s rules. Your heart and soul are bared in your writing, so it should be your voice that screams it to the world. Create something that makes you happy, and if someone tells you it is wrong, consider what they say and what might be valid about their opinion, and then promptly do whatever you feel is right.

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t write this kind of post until after I get published. Oh well!

Also, if you’re interested in that article from The Guardian that I mentioned above, which features writing rules (most of which are the good kind) from authors such as Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, and Helen Dunmore, check it out here: Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.

What’s your opinion on rules for writing? Do you think Mr. Leonard is right and I’m an unpublished dunce? Let me know, comment below! Just don’t use any adverbs.

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5 thoughts on “When “Rules” Hurt Your Voice

  1. I’m one of those who talks about the ‘rules’ (though I call em tips in my posts) simply because it is what I’ve been learning and whenever I learn something I like to share it. I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I find the rules comforting and feel like they hold my work up. Conversely, just about everything I’ve read and every creative writing course I’ve taken (there are quite a few) tells me to ditch the rules whenever possible! So, in short you are corrects and I agree with you. I just need to learn to ditch the rules myself sometimes.

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  2. Hey, my anti-rule rule is totally self-applicable. If your tips offer you the structure you need, there’s nothing wrong with that! No one knows what is best for your work better than you (even if you remain in denial about it until somebody points it out, i.e. me going exposition crazy). At the end of the day, when you hold that glimmering finished manuscript in your hands, it really doesn’t matter if you’ve followed or broken every rule to get there.

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  3. I share the rules because that’s my job. I even get paid to enforce them. However, that being, said, they really are more like guidelines, anyway. I think the best advice on rules is to know them. Simple enough, right? If you know them, you can choose to break them, and it will be purposeful and most likely powerful. But if you don’t know them, you’re likely to break so many that people will either be confused or turned off.

    I laughed when I read your opinion on adverbs, because I just did a blog post on them two weeks ago. Not my first on that topic and not my last, I’m sure. “Manner” adverbs stand out to me when I edit, almost as if they were written in reflective paint and my laser-beam eyeballs were highlighting them. I edit them out of people’s books (when they’re overused) and I find them all over my blog posts and in my everyday speech. And yeah, I have them throughout this comment. But there you go. I’m a rule-breaker from way back.

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  4. You make an incredibly valid point about breaking the rules intentionally versus out of ignorance. It makes a huge difference. It took me an embarrassingly long time to recognize passive versus active voice (I was never taught the distinction as a student), and even longer to finally begin eliminating the passive from my writing. But going back over my old works, I found that those mistakes were already marked by Microsoft Word. Clearly past Isaac thought that he knew better, and now present Isaac has to clean up his mess.

    I also want to emphasize here that I’m not criticizing the rule followers or enforcers. I’m not some brilliant or revolutionary writer who thinks the rules are suffocating his genius. I just know that when I write I would rather get absorbed in the act of writing than distract myself trying to self-enforce the rules that are unnatural or contradictory for me. Publishing, especially traditionally, is quite a different matter. Assuming my editor and I have an efficient and cooperative relationship, I would be more than happy to accommodate the rules if they think it is for the best.

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    1. That’s the key! “. . . my editor and I have an efficient and cooperative relationship.” THAT is what it all boils down to. I like your “past Isaac v. present Isaac” comparison. We all live and learn, and hopefully grow in the process.

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