How to Spot Bad Writing Rules

Back in June, I wrote a post about a piece of writing advice I came across that was well-intentioned but ultimately not all that helpful. And it got me thinking about all the other bad rules I’ve come across since I started writing. I think I’m going to do several posts about this–because there’s a lot of it out there–but let’s just have an overview today.

Rules vs blanket statements

I think one reason bad “rules” get so much attention is that a lot of people can’t tell the difference between a rule and a blanket statement.

  • Rules are explicit regulations that govern conduct. Some of them can be kind of arbitrary, but if you dig deep enough you’ll usually find a reason for their existence. There’s almost always some kind of substance or evidence to illustrate their purpose.
  • A blanket statement is a vague premise without any evidence to back it up. A lot of the time, they’ll start with “always” or “never,” even though whatever they’re promoting is usually not absolute.

We have rules for a reason. In writing, things like correct spelling and grammar make it possible to communicate clearly. They establish a standard that everyone can follow. Think about meter in poetry, for example. Limericks always have the same pattern. If you want to get even more simple, think about the way you read periods. I. Bet. This. Is. Really. Annoying….But it got my point across. And question marks? You saw that and “heard” the question, didn’t you?

Blanket statements can sound like rules, but they’re not absolute and they don’t create a standard. The reasoning behind them is usually limited to the creator’s opinion and they’re not based in fact. Like the one we discussed last time–“You should always give your characters simple names.” Simple relative to what? Also, why? Another common one is “Never open a story with the weather.” Hemingway did it at least once, though. George Orwell’s classic, 1984, opened with “…a bright cold day in April.” Use your best judgment when you see someone post a statement that starts with one of those key words (always or never)–most of the time, it’s probably a bad writing rule.

Do rules even matter at all?

Ehh…It depends. Basic grammar and spelling are probably the most important rules you need to follow when you’re writing, but even then you can break them if the situation calls for it. That old standard, “show, don’t tell” also gets thrown around a lot, but we’ve discussed it in the past. Remember, it’s not as hard and fast as some people like to say it is.

Writing is subjective. What works in one story may not work in others, even if it’s a generally accepted practice. Sometimes I feel like the point of learning all these rules is so you know when and how to break them. As I add to this series, I’ll try to be sure and explain as much of this as I can. A lot of the time, it’s going to come down to the way readers interpret your work, and feedback is the best teacher of them all.

Submission guidelines are a different story, of course. If you’re trying to publish, you need to stick to those. Even when you’re self-publishing, there will be guidelines to follow. They can be frustrating, but they create a standard that makes life easier for the people who work for the publisher. They don’t fall into the category of bad writing rules.

Identifying bad writing rules

This is pretty simple, I think. The good rules help you learn how to communicate clearly and consistently. These are things like spelling and grammar rules. Most of them indicate that you need to find some kind of balance in your writing–they try to tell you how and when you should use certain tactics, as well as how and when to avoid them.

Bad rules tend to be absolutes. They start with, or try to imply that, you should “always” or “never” do whatever they’re trying to convince you to do. A lot of them look like you should apply them to every situation–like the only simple names rule that we’ve talked about before–but when you really start thinking about them, they’re not universally applicable. Some of them are so ridiculous that they’re easy to spot. Others come from good rules that have been misinterpreted, and those are a little harder to recognize.

If you ever see one that leaves you stumped, just take a minute to think about it. Question it. Does it make sense? Will it make your work clearer and easier to understand? Also, ask other writers what they think of it. Discussion is healthy. Don’t be afraid to start one.

Share your bad rules with me

I hope this helps you spot bad writing rules next time you see them in the wild. If you do come across any, please post them in the comments below. I love deconstructing them, and I might even blog about them.

Okay, enough fun. I’ll see you all on Friday for another exercise. And of course I have another rant planned for Wednesday. Have a great week!

bad writing rules pin

Image credit: Debby Hudson, Unsplash

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