It's good to study other writers' rules, but in the end, those rules were not made for you—they were made for other writers. If you're serious about being a writer, then you need to figure out your rules of writing and stick to them. This post will show you how.
My Rules of Writing
First, I'm going to share my rules of writing with you. Then I'll show you how I got there, and how you can craft your own.
- Write it anyway.
- Read a lot.
- I have permission to suck.
- Escape matters.
Step One: How NOT to Choose Your Rules
1. Don't make your rules stylistic.
I've seen quite a few that warn never to use adverbs or never to use dialogue tags apart from “said.” While that kind of declaration is helpful to show what's what's in publishing fashion right now, it will not help you long-term. Why? Because it is entirely stylistic.
Writer-fashion changes from generation to generation. Rules like “only use ‘said' as a dialogue tag” would have ended Terry Pratchett and destroyed JK Rowling, erasing the whimsy and humor and voice from much of their writing.
There will be times for stylistic choices. Don't make those times a universal writing rule.
2. Don't pick a rule that only applies to now.
Maybe you're having trouble with a school assignment. Maybe you're struggling with a character, or with finding an ending. Overly-specific rules may help you in the short-term, but you're looking for ones that will apply the rest of your writing career.
If I, for example, decided to only write strong women because I'm currently trying to write one in a book, I'd be doing myself a major disservice.
Not all women are strong. Women, you see, are people. (Gasp.)
I know I haven't always been strong, and neither have the women I've known through my life. To write effective, believable women, I can't give myself a rule that only applies to this book or that book, or I'd only be robbing myself of the chance to create vibrant, complicated people.
Step Two: How to Choose Your Rules
1. Aim for your weaknesses.
One thing you've seen me say a lot is this: write it anyway. I do that because my own personal weakness is to let fear and doubt, exhaustion and writer's block, or real life and its busyness get in the way of my writing.
My weakness: I freeze. I trip myself. I go, “Wow, this sucks,” or “It just isn't right,” and I stop writing.
So what's my number one rule? Write it anyway.
Write it even if I'm tired. Write it even if it sucks. Write it even if I know it's going in the wrong direction and I won't be keeping it. For me, write it anyway must be rule number one.
What is your biggest writing weakness? Not just in this moment. Figure out the writing weakness that plagues everything you write, and make sure your first rule combats that.
2. Keep growing.
Nobody “arrives” as a writer. We all grow, and if we're going to do it well, we need to do it intentionally.
For me, rule number two is read a lot. When I read, I get to see first-hand what works and what doesn't. When I read, I swim in the rhythms of beautiful sentences and I'm reminded of the raw power of story and vulnerable beauty.
Reading gives me the tools to write better. For you, this may be taking classes or specific courses in storytelling. Whatever it is that helps you grow as a writer, do that—and don't stop.
3. Remember that you are human.
For me, rule number three is I have permission to suck. Two reasons why:
- I know I'm going to mess up (and so will you). I'll miss that writing time or write something terrible, offend exactly the wrong person or fail to convey the thing I was desperate to put into words. I'll blow it. You'll blow it. And that's okay.
- I will never reach perfection (and neither will you). If I try to write only perfect things, I will never finish, never publish, and never put anything in the public eye.
Neil Gaiman said this:
Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
Hank Green puts it another way: get it to 80%, then move on.
And as I get to 80% of the best that I can do, over and over again really fast, suddenly my new 80% is way better than my old 100% ever could have been.
Listen: You have to live with the rules you're making. If you don't give yourself room to break them sometimes, you will feel like you're a failure. Make sure your third rule somehow encompasses this truth: you're not a failure. You're human. And that is okay.
4. Tattoo the “why” inside your soul.
Victoria Schwab said something powerful in a live talk in Phoenix last year:
If you love doing anything more than writing, do that instead.
Here's why she said that: writing is hard.
You will face rejection. You will face readers who take the best thing you've ever done and not only fail to understand it, but rip you apart as though you killed a kitten. You will face hard times, painful times, and some truly dark times of the soul.
All writers do. To keep writing requires love. Why you love writing is your shield. Why you love writing is your strength. Why you love writing is the reason you can believe I am meant to do this.
For me, rule four is escape matters because I was a lonely, bullied child, and books gave me escape while showing me my choices and words could make a difference. The escape in my books taught me to see things from different points of view and showed me that even overweight underdogs could make friends.
Books showed me I mattered while they provided escape. If I can give that to my readers, I've won. I love writing enough for that reason that I keep going even when I fail.
What Are Your Rules of Writing?
You can add as many rules of writing under each of these headings as you like. You'll notice that most professional writers' rules from Stephen King to JK Rowling fall into these categories: dealing with rejection, learning and growing as a writer, not giving up, etc.
The key is making sure those rules are long-term so they serve you well your entire writing career.
We're all on the same road. Take courage, fellow writer. You can do this.
What rules of writing do you live by? Let us know in the comments.
Take fifteen minutes to figure out at least one writing rule for yourself by using one of the four points:
- Aim for your weaknesses.
- Keep growing.
- Remember that you are human.
- Tattoo the “why” inside your soul.
When you're done, share your rules in the comments. And be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers.
Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.
Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.
When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.
P.S. Red is still her favorite color.