Rules of Writing: How to Create Your Own Rules

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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.

How to Create Your Own Rules of Writing

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.

  1. Write it anyway.
  2. Read a lot.
  3. I have permission to suck.
  4. 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 suckTwo reasons why:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
—Neil Gaiman

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.
—Hank Green

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.

Why do you write?

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.

PRACTICE

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.

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24 Comments

  1. Sarojini Pattayat

    I love it.
    Sometime I write more and sometime I write less, but it works on me to belive that I am a writer. You have to write to live as a writer published or unpublished.

    Thanks for your great post.

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      Really glad to help, Sarojini! If you write, you ARE a writer, and there’s power in owning those words.

      Reply
      • Beverly Brown

        1. Write and rewrite more each day, new stories and poems.
        2. Over come fear of ‘Rules’ for writing poetry by studying and learning to write rules for my self.
        3. Learn to leave ‘perfection’ versions and go back to rewrite,rewrite many stories and poems written over the years.
        4. Continue to enjoy writing for the write Practice for what i can learn from others.

        Reply
  2. Tyerone Johnson

    My top five rules are as follows.
    1. Write something every day.
    2. Try to learn something about writing every day.
    3. Read every day.
    4. Have fun playing with words.
    5. As long as it serves the story well, then anything goes.

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      These are great rules, Tyerone! I love the emphasis on both growing and playing. That is so important.

      Reply
      • Tyerone Johnson

        Thanks, Ruthanne. I take my craft serious, but also realize if I don’t give myself space to have fun and explore, then I’ll get burned out and stop writing altogether.

        So I’d add: Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day or two, because we’re only human and life can get in the way sometimes.

        Reply
  3. Luis A.J.

    My Top Rules
    1. Keep my cellphone as far away as possible.
    2. Read (Part of a story and Part of a Book on Writing) everyday.
    3. Write every day, applying what I learned from the pages I read in the day to my writing.
    *Then if I have the time, I write some more.

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      Luis, these are really solid. I love that you’re fighting your weaknesses as rule number one, too!

      Reply
      • Luis A.J.

        Thanks Ruthane! And yes. One can be amazed at how much time we spend on our phones; it has too many distractions.

        Reply
  4. Ronn Jerard Writes

    My rules are:
    (1) Write every day, because I’m scared that I can’t write, and that my writing will suck.
    (2) Read and re-read books on writing often,, especially Stephen King.
    (3) Take a writing class.
    (4) Be aware of, and convince myself that, writing takes discipline; and start disciplining myself.
    (5) Go back to Rule 4 and work it daily

    Reply
    • Ruthanne Reid

      This is great, Ronn! I know that fear all too well, and it really can freeze us up.

      You can do this!

      Reply
  5. Claire

    Great post, Ruthanne! My Rules of Writing are simple:
    1 – Write something, no matter how concise, everyday.
    2 – Don’t revise to the point of perfection.
    3 – Accept rejection with aplomb. It’s part of the trade.
    4 – Don’t let criticism diminish your writing ability. Remember you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
    5 – Don’t be afraid to step our of your comfort zone when writing.
    6 – Expand your horizons by reading.

    Reply
  6. TerriblyTerrific

    Great rules for every writer. Thank you!

    Reply
  7. WendS

    I write for therapy mostly but have been writing short stories to sell because I’ve had some really good reviews from colleagues at work. They seem to really enjoy my stories. Wish that the magazines felt the same way 🙂
    1. I love to put on display the weakness of a character and show that it is ok to be so
    2. I write the entire story in about 50 words and then I expand on it. I try to expanded to at least 500 words before I do research but I love the research part and I itch to get to it.
    3. sometimes – actually more than sometimes – after my research my story will take a different turn and the story I had in mind will become something completely different.
    4. I’m not shy but I often don’t have much to say (except if I do have something to say) and I find writing such a great release and beats bursting forth with my angst verbally.

    Reply
  8. Claudia Shepard

    I have a lot but I think this one is more important than the other rules I made.
    Rule #1: Your words matters. Based on my own weaknesses, I have this sort of insecurities with my writing. The “what if” questions. “What if they don’t like it?” “What if I write it wrong?” “What if” “what if” “what if”… It gets tiring to hear this over and over again in your head. Since then, I realized, it doesn’t matter. What matter most is your writing and the story you are trying to tell. Eventually, someone out there do get it but if they don’t, it’s okay. I don’t have to beat myself up because of it. I write what matters to me and I love it that way. This is my number 1 rule for writing.
    Rule #2: sharing is caring. Share what you wrote and if they love it, then that’s a bonus point for you. ( By the way, I love this post so thank you for sharing it).
    Rule #3: Read. Books, article or blog. It helps a LOT.

    Reply
  9. Rathin Bhattacharjee

    I’very been thinking a lot while going through Ruthanne Reid’s post. Honestly, I never knew anything about the importance of having some writing rules, in the first place. Like the begger, who turned out to be the happiest man in the world, in Tagore’so story: The King’s Disease, I write when I have the urge, otherwise I don’t. The beggar, of course, didn’t write, but the King was as befuddled on hearing that he ate when people gave him food; had only one shirt and slept under the tree without a care!
    Anyway, I love writing and in order to keep my writing on the track, I try to read at least 3 books a month ( I’s stunned to find out from Nicolas Sparks’ autobiographical novel called Three Weeks With My Brother that at one time he’s bent on reading a hundred books a year! I read in the belirf that my readings enrich my writing.
    Secondly, after going through the same novel, I’ve decided to write at least for an hour a day. I don’t know right now if I can stick to this rule. Sparks at one time was writing for hours daily. Till now I couldn’t put pen to paper for more than an hour at the most. That I’ve some writing aspirations, appear incredulous even to myself right now!
    Finally, I love writing keeping the basic human goodness factor in mind. This world of ours is meant to be a beautiful one and all my efforts, endeavours are always geared towards making it a little better, a little brighter.
    I’do like to conclude by thanking Ruthanne Reid for the insightful information about the Writing Rules. Hopefully, from now on, I’d have something to be guided by, so far as my writing practices are concerned. Thank you once more,Ruthanne Reid and not to forget someone, who has lately taken up the role of being my mentor, Mr. Joe.

    Reply
  10. George McNeese

    I hadn’t thought about creating my own writing rules. It makes sense as to why I need my own rules. For me, writing is a mental game. And I need to be sharp mentally if I am to succeed in this journey. So my number one rule is to not compare myself to others. I have a terrible tendency to look at others’ journeys and wish I was in their shoes. But the truth is that I will never be them. I can only be me. As such, it’s a waste of energy to compare myself to others; energyvthat can be used to become a better writer.

    Reply
  11. Louie Neira

    My words are all I have. I can’t think of a better reason to keep writing.

    Reply
  12. Beverly Brown

    Beverly Brown Ruthanne Reid • 14 hours ago

    1. Write and rewrite more each day, new stories and poems.

    2. Over come fear of ‘Rules’ for writing poetry by studying and learning to write rules for my self.

    3. Learn to leave ‘perfection’ versions and go back to rewrite,rewrite many stories and poems written over the years.

    4. Continue to enjoy writing for the write Practice for what i can learn from others.
    Save EditCancel Sorry, I must have posted in the wrong place. Here or my rules.

    Reply
  13. Angelina

    Ruthanne, I really liked your «permission to suck», lol)
    I’m a beginner at this field but still will take over the responsibility to share my rools.
    1.When I feel like writing but it doesn’t come out- leave it for some time and try to write something different.
    2.Learn new words.
    3.Don’t be ashamed by the fact that sometimes I can reach out to proofreading service. My favorite is https://pro-papers.com/proofreading-and-editing-services (in case someone is interested in it too).
    4.And the last one- never compare yourself to other writers.

    Reply
  14. Courtnie

    My rules:
    1. Don’t let fear tell you that you can’t
    2. Write daily
    3. Never give up
    4. Don’t compare yourself to other wirters
    5. Your a good writer
    6. Read as well as write
    7. STOP PROCRASTINATING

    Reply
  15. Elena Mennin

    Since I am a manager of Essays Professor I have many writers and they have to stick to general rules of writing because that’s what school requires.

    Reply

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