The Rules of Writing and Why You Should Ignore Them

There are two kinds of rules in writing-the kind that matter and the kind that are hogwash.

It’s easy to spot the difference. The ones that matter pertain to things like grammar, spelling, manuscript formatting, query etiquette and market guidelines. The ones that are hogwash pertain to things like when and how you write.

How many times have you heard “rules” like the below?

“You must write every day.”

“You must outline your work before you start.”

“You must keep a journal.”

“You must write ten pages a day.”

“You must write with no distractions.”

“You must put your work aside for at least a week before you begin revising.”

All of those things are not rules – they are advice, worded too strongly. And while each of them works for some people, they don’t work for all people. It’s easy to get stressed out as a writer if you believe you’re not doing what you “should” be doing.

For example, I remember my English teacher forcing everyone in the class to write extensive outlines before we began assignments. This works well for writers who need that kind of structure to keep them on track. But me? It often killed my inspiration.

When I write fiction, part of the reason I write is because I want to know what happens next! Once I’ve made an extensive outline, I know exactly where the story is going and how it will end. Then it becomes anti-climactic for me to actually write about it and my writing shows my lack of enthusiasm. I much prefer to have a very brief summary in my head – rarely including an ending – and then sit back and let my characters unfold as they will.

Of course, that means I must often do a lot of rewriting when I’m done. When you’re working in a stream-of-consciousness manner, there’s usually a lot of clean-up work to be done afterwards. But I prefer that a hundred times over to simply following a map to get my words down on paper.

Should YOU outline? Maybe and maybe not. It all depends on how you work best and you may not know yet which way works best for you. That’s fine! Experiment with it and see what pleases you most.

Try writing a few pieces with an outline and a few without. Let the results guide you – don’t let another writer’s “rule” make you feel inadequate if it doesn’t work for you.

Ditto for the “distractions” bit. I find it nearly impossible to write if the television isn’t on. I know-weird, right? But I’m a multi-tasker at heart.

I’ve often tried to figure out my own logic on this one; I don’t know why I work better when all of my attention isn’t on the project at hand. Maybe it’s just that silence makes me edgy. Maybe it’s because I’m alone in the house all day and television makes it feel like I have people around me. I don’t know.

But I do know that it’s been working for me for many years, I’m one of the most prolific writers I know, and anyone who says that a writer “must” work in a closed-up room with no outside stimuli gets a big thumbs down from me.

Again, it’s all a matter of experimenting to find out what works for you. Maybe you like the distraction of occasional phone calls or a radio when you work. I know writers who do their best work in public-in coffee shops, on subways, on airplanes. Maybe that’s a writer’s way of being a bit of an exhibitionist. Or maybe being around snippets of other people’s conversations bring on inspiration.