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5 Writing Rules That Work No Matter What You’re Writing

Short stories. Marketing copy. News reporting. Poetry. Business proposals. Literary fiction. Technical writing. Blogs. Advertising.

There are a ton of different kinds of writing out there, each strikingly different from others. Worse, each different kind follows different writing rules.

5 Writing Rules That Work No Matter What You're Writing

Photo by Kelly Sikema (Creative Commons). Adapted by The Write Practice.

 

And yet, regardless of what kind of writing you do, there are certain foundational writing rules that are universal, rules that apply to all kinds of writing.

5 Rules on How to Become a Better Writer

Here are five writing rules to be a better writer:

1. Don’t judge the first draft.

No matter what you’re writing, the first draft should be about getting the ideas on the page—never let your inner editor hold you down at this stage. That’s what revisions are for.

2. Keep it simple.

It’s easy for your message to get buried in the language. So speaking of revisions, one of the best tools in your review toolbox is always the question, “Can this sentence be simplified?”

If it can be simpler, make it simpler.

3. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly.

Regardless of what you’re writing, verbs are your power words. Make them do your heavy lifting, and keep the lightweight descriptors like adjectives and adverbs scarce (see rule #2).

4. Always get an outside edit.

Whether it’s a novel or a blog post, sometimes we get trapped in our own ideas, and the grand vision clouds our ability to see the actual words on the page.

So work your vision and polish it up as much as you can … but then, get feedback from someone else whose editorial judgment you respect.

5. Break writing rules with intention.

As Pablo Picasso so wisely said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break the rules like an artist.”

There are times to stick to the rules, and there’s those times to think beyond them … in any kind of writing.

Many kinds of writing, the same basic principles.

Whether it’s a business proposal or a personal essay, a poem or ad copy, there are some basic writing rules and principles that apply to all of them.

Learn these writing rules and master your craft, and you’ll have the solid foundation to foray into any kind of writing you want. 

What different kinds of writing do you practice? Let us know in the comments section!

PRACTICE

Take what you know about the kind of writing you’re experienced with, and apply them to a new kind of writing. For example, if you’re used to writing genre fiction, why not try a personal essay or features article?

Spend fifteen minutes or more giving it a shot, and you’ll likely find you know more than you’d expect. Then, share your thoughts about the experience in the comments, and support each other’s insights.

About Emily Wenstrom

By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.

  • Ginger Medina-Rios

    As Hemingway once said, “write drunk, edit sober”. Thanks for the article!

    • Thanks Ginger … fantastic quote 🙂

    • Carol B.

      @CarolBwell Love this quote. Might have to try it. Discipline or spontaneity? Is there a rule

  • I’m writing a novel, as well as short stories and poetry, and even songs. But I do throw a couple of essays in there once in awhile. The main theme I have in all of my writing is it’s 100% about the Lord.
    What you are saying is so true, as I have come to find out, (and realize, thanks to this article). It hits home when you are someone who writes different things, and you can apply it to every one!
    I’d do a practice, but I am not too proud to admit that I don’t even know how to write most of the things out there!
    Thanks for the post, I’ll be sure to use it with my work!
    “Whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not unto men”

  • Emily,

    Great post and wonderful ideas. I write for several different disciplines, but hadn’t stopped to think what those disciplines had in common. I’ll be more careful to do so in the future, thanks to these tips.

    • Thanks Carrie — I also do several different kinds of writing … in fact I’ve essentially based my entire career from the idea that if you can do *one* kind of writing well, you have the foundation you need to learn how to do *other* kinds of writing well, too. Eight years in, it’s still proving true on a daily basis, and has empowered me to give all sorts of new things a try.

  • Robert Wray

    Hi everyone , I am writing a manuscript and is almost complete , The story or my Theme is about child abuse, Child Molestation , and how this 5 year old grows up with such bad parenting through the Alcohol, and with no morals of any kind, also this child has been Molested by 12 other men in his childhood .and how this child will lose how to be with other children , and his teen life is so distorted , with no communication skills or Direction from his Mother or Father,

    I have been wanting to tell my truth about Pedophiles and seems I cant get anyone to read my Manuscript with 23 thousand words this far, is their anyone who will read my Script to let me no if my story is worth while , Thanks

    • I just finished listening in my car to Jodi Picoult’s “A Perfect Match.” I highly recommend it for those interested in writing on your theme.

    • Gary G Little

      Do an excerpt, target maybe the first 1000 to 1500 words and post it here, or in the Writers Workshop.

      • Robert Wray

        Thank you, where can I find this workshop

      • Robert Wray

        Do you mean post 1000 to 1500 words from my Manuscript right here

  • I really needed to read that first rule today. My first draft has been murdering me because I’m not letting myself be free with it. Thanks for reminding me to focus on getting the ideas down.

    • Sometimes when I’m really just not in the mood, I shut down my inner critic by writing what I call an “ugly draft” … it’s a draft that goes a step beyond “rough” because it’s really intended to be ugly, allowing me to throw a smattering of the basic ideas and points on the page with links to sources, etc. The permission to be terrible is everything, and it gets the structure started so that when I come back to edit, I’ve got a nice head start.

  • My question is, how and why should you keep adjectives and adverbs scarce? If I’m writing scifi or fantasy fiction, wouldn’t I want the reader to “hear” and “smell” and “feel” the surroundings? To actually experience what they’re reading? How do you do that without describing what’s going on?

    • NerdOfAllTrades

      Three ideas:
      First, I think it comes back to “Show, don’t tell.” For instance, if a person walks into a greenhouse filled with roses:
      Telling: “As he slowly walked through the massive doors, the fragrant roses overwhelmingly distracted him.”
      Showing: “He made an effort to shorten his stride, so that he could take in how massive the greenhouse was. The doorway, more than anything, caught his attention: if his house had been on wheels, it could have rolled through the opening with feet to spare on every side. A hiss sounded as the doors slid closed, and his nostrils were overwhelmed by the fragrance of roses in bloom. The scent returned his mind to thoughts of childhood, playing in the garden, and he no longer heard the words of his guide.”
      In the second example, there are still adjectives and adverbs, but they’re no longer crowding up the sentence structure. In the first example, all of the adverbs and adjectives are trying to add detail, but pack the detail into in as few words as possible; the latter example explores those details.

      Second, it’s a matter of picking moments. If you wrote a few paragraphs in the style of the first example, it would get old fast. The second example, being more evocative, you could probably draw out for a page or so, but you wouldn’t want to read a whole book like that. I mean, how often, in your day-to-day life, do you sit back and take in detail like that?
      So you can use adverbs and adjectives, get really descriptive and bring your readers into the moment, but then you have to let the moment go, and pick up the pace again.

      Finally, rule 5 above: rules are meant to be broken. First you learn what the rules are, and why they have been put into place, and you write by the rules. Once you’re comfortable writing by the rules, you have to start playing outside the lines. For instance, if your character is feeling claustrophobic, maybe you want to cram as many adjectives and adverbs into a sentence as possible, to make the reader feel claustrophobic. Sometimes, you’ll fall exactly into the traps that the rules are supposed to prevent, but other times, you’ll be able to accomplish things that those who write inside the rules never can.

      • The idea is to keep even your descriptions lean on words and focused on those heavyweight words like verbs and nouns … but don’t worry, adjectives and adverbs still have their place, they just shouldn’t be doing the brunt of the work.

      • Thanks! Those examples really help a lot. Looks like I need to do a lot of revision on my stories, but it’ll be worth it!

  • NerdOfAllTrades

    I’m adding a disclaimer because I’m writing this in the form of a news article (a medium in which I have no experience), describing someone getting arrested, and I really do not want to get sued for libel.

    So: this is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between the characters described and any real person, living or otherwise, is coincidental and unintended.

    ————————————————————————-

    “Vigilante” arrested, charged with assault, unlawful confinement.
    By Sandra Green, special correspondent

    The costumed patroller known as “Vibe” was arrested today. Upon his arrest, his mask was removed, and he was identified as Patrick O’Keefe, age 26, a noted philanthropist and political activist.

    Chief Derek Thibideau of the Toronto Police went on record as saying, “Mr. O’Keefe, alias ‘Vibe,’ is a criminal. He has assaulted several people, and escalated many situations that could have been defused by calling the Toronto Police. We intend to prosecute him to the full extent of the law, to discourage any other costumed vigilantes from taking the law into their own hands.

    “The fact that he wears a mask,” he continued, “makes it plain that he knew that he was breaking the law, and wanted to avoid the consequences.”

    A warrant has been on the books for Vibe’s arrest since October, soon after he first appeared in Toronto. His identity came as a shock to the community.

    “Pat?” said Constance Whittaker, 53. “Can’t be. He’s a community leader. Spends his days in soup kitchens. How could such a nice boy assault anyone?”

    About 150 people protested the arrest outside the Main Street courtroom. Some came to support Patrick, some for his alter-ego. Although his methods have not been endorsed by the Toronto Police, Vibe made headlines earlier this year for defusing a hostage situation without any loss of life.

    “Damn right, Vibe should be set free,” said a protestor, wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, who did not wish to be identified by name. “He’s done more to cut crime in my neighborhood than the Police ever had. He’s a hero, a real hero.” The protestor then joined in with a shouted chorus of “Set Vibe Free!”

    Mr. O’Keefe would not comment as he entered the police station, already handcuffed and unmasked. However, his lawyer, Terrence Ides, read from a prepared statement.

    “Mr O’Keefe,” he said, “is an established pillar of the community, and denies any claim of vigilantism. He maintains that he was merely acting as a Good Samaritan, doing what any decent person would do when witnessing a hostage situation, or a mugging, or a car accident. He intends to fight these charges, and restore his good name. We have no further comment at this time.”

    Mr O’Keefe is scheduled to be arraigned tomorrow morning. Prosecutors are asking for him to be remanded into custody, claiming he is likely to reoffend if his is released. The defense will likely hold up O’Keefe’s record of services to the community in order to seek bail.

    ————————————————————————-
    I found this very useful. I have a bad habit of writing long, convoluted sentences (my essays, when returned to me, were littered with “AWK” in red pen). As I went back and edited, stripping out adjectives and cleaning up the sentence structure, I noticed that the article started to sound more professional.
    Another thing I noticed, more specific to what I was writing, is that it’s incredibly hard to write this kind of newspaper story from a viewpoint-neutral context. My quotes and how I stated the facts kept changing during the editing process, tilting the story one way, back again – I still think it swings too far to the pro-Vibe side, but I ran out of patience.

  • Gary G Little

    I have pondered all of my submissions here since I joined a few months ago; March I think but I’m not sure, time passes so ambiguously when you’re retired. My purpose for joining Becoming Writer was to write decent sci-fi, but I find that I have tiptoed, at least once, into nearly all of the genres. I have amazed myself in all of the efforts here, and I find, or at least I believe that writing, something I enjoy is improving, thanks to the comments and critiques I have received.

    I think the point is … try it, you most likely will be amazed.

    • That’s great, keep it up!

    • Susan Barker

      I have tried writing, and it’s wonderful. I’m still at it, and will continue. The ideas finally found their way to the surface, and are taking shape on paper. Like you said, I’m also improving my writing. 🙂

  • HP van Duuren

    Besides the types of writing you can read about on my blog, one of the other types of writing is writing comments & replies on blog posts.

  • LilianGardner

    I grab any article about how to improve my writing. The rules are always the same, but the rule here which I love is #2, that is, to ‘keep it simple!’
    I haven’t posted much since I joined The Write Practice, but I will do since members are the only feedback I have.

    • That’s a great idea, Lillian … feedback is so invaluable to improving our craft 🙂

  • I live by rule #1. If I didn’t , I would have stopped writing right then and there.

  • Dawn Brockmeier

    I am writing Memoirs, supposedly. I find it rather hard to put so much stuff together. So I was told to write a fictional Memoir. That has been a fun endeavor. Looks nothing like my past life, I like it better! May post it later, when I finish my edits!

  • Оля Клименко

    Oh !What such a wonderful article. It helps me to solve my problems with writing. Sometimes when I try to write essay someone helps to write my paperhttp://writepaper4me.com/. It is really clever. As you know that writing is very hard work.

  • Good article but watch for mistakes like this:

    There are times to stick to the rules, and >>> there’s those times <<>> there are those. <<< because those is plural.

    http://www.novel-secrets.com

    • LilianGardner

      A good observation.

      • Thanks, Lilian. Can’t help it. I’ve been teaching writing since 1984!

        • LilianGardner

          I need your expert help. Please tell me if the rules have changed and if a capital letter is not in use now in dialogue, after a question mark. Example: ‘Would you like another piece of cake?’ She or she, asked. I am used to the former, that is, a capital.

          • No problem. Ask me anytime. In this case, it would be “Would you like another piece of cake?” she asked. The attribution is now thought to be part of the sentence so it is always she, he, they etc. http://www.novel-secrets.com

          • LilianGardner

            Thanks for clearing my doubts.
            I’ll take you up on your offer to ask you anytime. I know you’ll have the right answers.

          • Good! I’m here for you.
            If you prefer, email me at crewslary (at=@)gmail.com

          • Good! I’m here for you.

            If you prefer, feel free to email me at crewslary (at=@)gmail.com

          • LilianGardner

            A belated thank you.

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  • Those things would be useful if they can be able to learn on how to apply it on their own way. Learning those steps might be easy but applying it on their work might not.