When do writing rules work?

The other week, my good blogging pal, JM, wrote an awesome post. She’d asked several readers, a combination of writers and non-writers (referred to as “real world readers” in JM’s post), to look at her rough draft. I was one of the writer-readers.

A particular scene had received mixed reviews. Her writer-readers had troubles with the scene because they thought it tended to break a rule or two. The real world readers enjoyed the scene and didn’t mention anything about rules.

JM raises a tough question: “But I wonder if maybe—just maybe— writers, agents, editors, and publishers are missing the boat when we focus on the lowest common denominators (otherwise known as today’s rules). Are we leaving out something those readers might enjoy even more? And might have them reading more books, not fewer?”

I’d like to tackle this question from the perspective of someone who not only writes but also helps other writers with their work.

I offer advice and suggestions based on the “rules.” If a writer wants to be traditionally published, he or she is expected to follow certain rules, not just in manuscripts, but in query letters and synopses as well.

(Hell, writers aren’t even supposed to blog about this stuff, for fear of ticking off a lit agent and getting blackballed in the publishing industry.)


Is the industry stripping the organic qualities from books if those qualities break rules? Probably. Who decided the word count ranges for books? Who came up with ‘tension all the time’? Who said that every scene should have a purpose? I’m sure the rules were formulated based on the experiences of a few influential people and they stuck because someone said they worked.

Rules are like that. When they work, we tend to keep them around.

There have to be some rules to follow, otherwise books will be outta control. Most rules can help authors who don’t know any better, or who can’t navigate a rough draft without something to hang onto.

Imagine the manuscripts submitted if there were no rules to follow? I think all writers know exactly what that would look like, because we’ve all written rough drafts and then stared at the mess we created, wondering how in the hell we’re going to pull the beast together.


Taking an example and running with it. I’m willing to bet that most experienced writers know that just because one unnecessary character may work in their book, that doesn’t mean they’re going to insert 8 more. Why wouldn’t they do this? Because earlier in their writing journey they used to include dozens of unnecessary characters. Until they learned too many unnecessary characters means that each character’s personality and influence is diluted.

Is the above a rule? Generally speaking yes, but I will also say that this rule is flexible depending on the genre you’re writing. If you’re writing in sprawling epic fantasy tradition, then a large cast is more of the norm than streamlined fiction.

This rule (like all rules) is also dependent on your skill as a writer.

We need to treat writing rules more like guidelines, rather than a do-or-die instruction list. When I critique a manuscript and I come across a broken rule, rather than immediately striking it in red, I ask myself, “Does this work?” I honestly try to see it from a real world reader’s perspective, as if I’m reading the book for pleasure rather than business.

We’re in the 21st century, and the tide has turned in favor of the writer. If we don’t want to break into traditional publishing or follow rules that don’t always make sense or apply to us, then we can choose self-publishing.

Indie publishing is a viable route for authors who write well, do their research, build a platform, and market their work. However, indie authors still have to follow rules, at least, to a point. As writers gain more experience and skill, then more rules get broken. Such writers have proven their mettle in the industry, with great reviews, far-and-wide readership, and respect from their peers.

They can get away with breaking rules because they’re good at it.

Until a writer becomes savvy at weaving a storyline and entertaining an audience, then the rules are helpful.

But let’s also keep in mind that not all readers know or care about the rules. Proof that sometimes, some rules are better off broken.


What writing rule do you tend to break?


Have a writerly day!


58 thoughts on “When do writing rules work?

  1. “(Hell, writers aren’t even supposed to blog about this stuff, for fear of ticking off a lit agent and getting blackballed in the publishing industry.)” Well, that explains it. 😉

    This is a great topic and offers much food for thought. As a reader I don’t know the rules exist — unless one is broken so severely it begins to pick at me as I’m reading. Or, if the plot and characters can’t hold my interest and my brain begins to wander instead of getting lost in the story.

    As a writer… I’m conscious of the rules. I attempt to obey them. But if the story I’m telling, the voice it’s being told in, if they are better served by bending or even breaking the ‘rules’ (and aren’t they more like guidelines, anyhow?) then I’m going to do it and gladly suffer the consequences. But there has to be a reason. And as I’m reading my ms as a reader, it has to work. I’m not going to break the rules just for the shock value.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hey Kathi,

      I think this can be a touchy subject for writers across the board. I’m generally a rule follower. When in doubt, I follow the rule. But as I’ve grown as a writer I have found that I can get around the rules when I know that what I’m writing works. Exactly as you point out — there has to be a reason to break the rules.

      Nah, I’m not into the shock value either. I’m not that rebellious!

      Thanks for swinging by!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I try to write like I talk or hear – sort of a stream of conscious style. I try to focus my writing on what matters most and try to tell my story so that the reader understands my perspective and point – it probably breaks all kinds of rules, but I am not writing to publish, I am writing to share and explore. Interesting post and it made me think about my purpose- have a great day. Enjoy your weekend.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Clay — you raise an excellent point. There is a HUGE (sorry for the yelling; I don’t know how to bold in the comment box) difference between writing for fun and writing with a purpose (publication). We don’t have to worry about whether our writing works if we’re not looking to be published.

      Even though we don’t have to follow the so-called rules when we’re writing for fun, if we’re planning to share our thoughts with anyone, then it does kinda have to make sense — as you say, “so that the reader understands my perspective and point”, in which case you’re following a few rules. Your grammar and punctuation are likely correct, your writing style is clear and cohesive, and your voice is entertaining and engaging.

      Because I know that you have those things in order (as I’ve read your blog posts), then you’re free as a bird when it comes to other elements. Bring on the fun! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Kate,
        I don’t know which rule this would be, but I definitely don’t know about how to write for fun. I always find writing very painful. I guess that’s why it’s going so slowly, and the editing is horrendous. Sometimes when I know I have to edit, I write something I didn’t want to write but I go with it anyway because it’s better than my original thought. But I still wish I had been able to find a way to fully express what I had originally wanted to say, but the characters or the scenes won’t cooperate because I don’t know how to describe them. So I make do with the drift, and I really didn’t want a thunderstorm, and I get soaked. Seems more interesting than the sunshine I wanted.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I am of the belief that to thoroughly enjoy writing, before we think about sharing it with others (on any level, whether it’s your mom or a lit agent), we need to write for ourselves first. I call that writing for fun sometimes, because you don’t have to worry about how things sound or look. Writing for yourself means that you give yourself permission to write anything without penalizing yourself or knocking yourself over the head for grammar errors, cliches, over-the-top narrative, etc. You’re simply writing because you love to write.

        I think all writers hit a place in their journeys where they think their work sucks. Nothing is going the way they imagined, and they have to drag themselves to their computers or notebooks. This is really normal, but totally not fun. I often find myself in these badlands around mid-winter because I suffer from seasonal affect disorder, and it affects my feelings toward my writing. I have learned to step away from the project that I don’t feel good about and either 1) turn my attention to another writing project that I have no intention of publishing or 2) stop writing for a while and dive into another creative hobby, such as photography.

        Ironically, what usually ends up happening is that I start to miss the project that was giving me such feelings of dread. Kind of like walking away from a taunting sibling only to have that sibling come looking for you because they’re bored and are now willing to play nice. 😉

        If you don’t regularly journal, my suggestion to you is to try that every day. Try spending about 15 minutes a day jotting down anything and everything that comes to your mind. There are no “rules” here and you have the freedom to do whatever you want because you know you don’t have to show it to anyone.

        Journaling acts like a warm-up exercise for me. I am getting out all the junk that’s in my head and onto pages that don’t matter. Then I’m more energized and eager to get to my WIP. My writing feels sharper and fresher.

        If you’re already journaling and you’re still feeling that writing is painful, then you should take another look at the project that’s bothering you. Whereabouts are you in your story? If you’re toward the beginning, then there might be something going on with your premise that’s preventing you putting down a solid plot. If you’re in the middle, then you might not have enough at stake for your characters, you might not have enough to propel them forward. Those are just a couple of things out of a number of areas that could be problematic.

        If you have a writing partner or even a trusted friend, I suggest having him/her look at it and offer up some suggestions.

        Good luck and do keep me posted.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I think you’ve summarised the topic really well here Kate and given your opinion on both sides. I think rules can be helpful for new writers, particularly if they’re lacking in confidence, because it effectively gives them a bit of a framework to write in, some solid things to hook onto to guide them through. I think the word “rules” is perhaps what puts some people off and brings out that rebellious streak, whereas if we think of it as helping us learn what has worked in the past, then it makes sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the word ‘rules’ is a bit off-putting, too. I mean, in some cases, rules are non-negotiable, like with spelling! 🙂 But I think if we can start out knowing a few do’s and don’ts, then as we learn the craft, we’ll be more able to put our own spin on things.

      Liked by 1 person

      • An aside on spelling: I can see now why it would be non-negotiable, because I made up words for a fictional language sprinkled throughout my novel. I’ve discovered that not only am I a bad speller in English (no matter how many times I look up a word), but even in my own invented language. Now I see I have to make a dictionary so I don’t misspell my own words. I have a machine that can melt its way through rock and dig endless tunnels. It’s called a thiktdi and I kept leaving out the “t“. I don’t know why I did it with a t except that I didn’t want it to look like English of any kind.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Creating your own fiction dictionary is exactly the right thing to do. Not only will it help you, but you can plug those words into your computer (if you’re using MS Word) so that the software recognizes the unusual words. Also, it will help your editor (when it comes time for that), so that he/she knows the proper spelling of the words in your invented language.


  4. “Until a writer becomes savvy at weaving a storyline and entertaining an audience, then the rules are helpful.”—I think that’s very true. We have to understand the process–and that includes the rules–in order to deviate from them.

    I’m reading a book right now for my book club called “How to Be Both” by Ali Smith. Talk about rule-breaking! It opens with a stream of consciousness I found so confusing, I almost gave up. Thought after thought broken up by a colon as punctuation. Pages and pages without a chapter break. But I’m glad I kept with it, because now I’m into the story, and I find the writer’s technique fascinating. She may break the rules but she does it because the story allows it–demands it even.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Stream of consciousness writing is confusing to me too. You really have to get into the speaker’s head in order to get anything he/she is telling you. Your description of the book makes me want to pick it up and read it — despite my troubles with that kind of storytelling.

      I like rule-breaking that works, because it lets all writers know we at least have a shot. 😉


  5. What an interesting discussion. I’ve taught academic writing in the past and my students have groaned and moaned about the rigidity of the rules at times. I told them to think of it as painting or drawing: they needed to learn how to draw an apple realistically before exploring with abstract or cubism; to have a strong understanding of the basic ground rules and then they could layer in creative touches once they had mastered that. That really seemed to help a lot of them as they pushed to master the craft.

    Liked by 3 people

    • What a great way to break your students into the more rigid functions of writing and storytelling. I think your idea is right on. I feel like that’s how I grew as a writer: by learning and following the rules, then once I felt comfortable, bored even, my voice and style emerged. From there, I took more risks with my stories.

      Years later, I’m still learning. Still breaking rules. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • I feel this could be compared with learning how to ride a bike. We start out with some extra support but once we’ve learned the skills, gained the confidence and strength we need to keep us balanced, we can get rid of the training wheels, no?
        “learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist”.. wasn’t that from Picasso?


  6. Oral sex is against the law in Indiana; so is spitting on the sidewalk in several places. Rules. We need to have them, but they need to be updated and rethought out.
    I have nothing against tradition, but traditions also keep a civilization static. Just be careful – “Question Everything”. I like that.
    Self-publishing is changing the face of writing. I think it’s a good thing. It will all even out. Somehow, we will find a way to spot the difference(s) between crap indie writing and that which should be read. I have read the crap and the good. You can, usually, spot it in 3 or 4 pages of the book.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Some of the writing rules might indeed be a bit on the archaic side. JM’s experience really hit home for me, as her real-world readers didn’t mind a scene that might have been scrapped by a lit agent or publisher. I think that we need to re-assess audiences and take a look at the indie books that are selling. Why are they doing well? What about them is drawing readers? And then compare and contrast them to traditionally published books. What can we learn as a team?

      Liked by 1 person

      • If we learn one thing it’s that it is so much cheaper to do indie, so there is no fear of losing much money on the output. The input will only be different, I think, if the book is a really good one as most, unfortunately, are not – really good, I mean, those million dollar sellers.


      • Very true on the financial front, Scott. And I think you’re right on the issue of “input.” Too many authors rush to self-publish, and their books aren’t ready. Going indie is a great option in general, but I think more authors need to take better care of their work before they decide to try selling it.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I always appreciate thoughtful posts like these, Kate, even when they make me second-guess myself. 🙂

    Personally, rules make me feel safe. The basics – spelling, grammar, punctuation – comfort me through a first draft; the more creative ones – build tension, push plot, use show verbs – help me along in my edits. Though, even the scythe-wielding inner editor in me sometimes sits back and lets a story just be what it is to grow organically, even if that means a slower scene or a conflict that remains unresolved for a few chapters. That’s why I’ve really come to embrace the idea of letting a story sit for a bit before tackling an edit, because that rest time between writing the last word and reading the first one again allows us to see the story as a reader. That hopefully fresh reading allows us to attack the text as a good editor should do.

    By the way, to bold in a comment box, you can add the emphasis code: open angle bracket, em, closed angle bracket. At the end of what you want to bold, put open angle bracket, stroke/slash, em, closed angle bracket. It looks like this, but replace the braces with the brackets: {em}I’m bold!{/em}

    Thanks for another post to make me think! And, just as importantly, make me think while I write. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha I just tried to bold a word in my reply to you and it ended up italicized! Go figure. Anyway, yes, I am a rule follower too. When in doubt, I follow the rule. Resting between drafts is a great way to tackle our stories. Our inner critic has gone to bed and we can work much more objectively.

      Rules are important, and some more so than others. I think as we grow as writers, we learn which rules are important to us.


      • I still remember your advice about character introductions, Kate. That’s an unwritten style rule I’ve tried to follow – or, not follow, as the case is – ever since.

        Woops! It must be “b” instead of “em.” My coding skills have gone to pasture with all these do-it-for-you interfaces. Sorry about that!


  8. It’s wonderful to see that my last post sparked such interest and thought! In hindsight, I think I would have added a few clarifications about which rules I meant. 😉 I was definitely referring to things that you discuss here, such as word counts, amount of required tension, and every scene needing a purpose.

    I just hope no one thought I meant any of the fundamental elements of good story telling! That is—the universals that cross-cut human cultures and history. Those universals are what keep the audience asking, “And then what happened?” no matter if it’s living in the 21st century United States, 10th century Japan, or 25,000 years ago in Africa. Good stories require good characters who experience interesting events and bring the audience into the story.

    Beyond those basics is where culture steps in. Every culture develops its own preferences for the types of stories to be told and how to tell them. And those preferences can change, traditionally over long periods of time through the centuries but more recently every few years in this modern technological age.

    To me, many of the newest rules reflect that rapidly changing modern world. Our attention spans grow shorter as we’re presented with so many new gadgets and choices. Our obsession with multi-tasking has us filling formerly “free” time with new hobbies and things to do. Many people also find themselves working longer hours at work. So the time for reading—and the attention span of the reader—grow ever shorter. Yet the proliferation of book publishing also means it’s harder than ever to find an audience. Small wonder that agents, editors, and publishers latch on to what does sell well as the formula to follow! And writers who want the traditional publication route need to follow suit.

    I still wonder, though, if we haven’t lost some good stories as a result…. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s all so very complicated, all the pieces of the puzzle that don’t fit. I’ve never done research on how indie publishing finally transitioned from ‘terrible idea’ to ‘outstanding idea’. And I really commend those writers who kicked it off. They were either very brave or simply very P.O.’d.

      I’m sure we have lost some good stories as a result. But those writers who never got published and ultimately gave up, if they still feel those stories in their bones and in their hearts, have a wonderful chance to try again.

      I know that you’re right when you talk about how the changes in the world have affected writing rules. I see that in other areas of Life, not just writing. And people have changed too, so I guess we just have to figure out how to fit our stories into it all.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This is a tricky subject, Kate. The writers who have made a big mark in the last hundred years are those who clearly don’t obey the rules. I found Carries comment interesting about the book she is currently reading. I wonder what it is about these books that catches the attention of Publishing Companies (Cormac McCarthy, The Road comes immediately to mind and then the book no one really wants to talk about – 50 Shades…). Most PCs will tell their authors not to go over 90,000 words but then we have George R.R. Martin’s A Game Of Thrones at 200,000 and Harry Potter The Order Of The Phoenix over 250,000 words. PCs tell us they want something original yet something that compares to a best-seller. It’s all very confusing. My thoughts are to write for yourself and write from the heart and you can’t go wrong.

    PS – a HUGE congratulations for winning the Short Story contest with ‘Shattered’. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Word count requirements are a little sketchy, I agree. I wonder if with Martin and Rowling, as they both wrote epic fantasies, they get leeway on word count. I also think that for both authors, as they’d proven successful in writing, they could get away with penning longer works.

      By the time Rowling wrote The Order of the Phoenix, she was well on her way to stardom and I don’t think her publisher was going to try and stop her, no matter how many words she wrote! Martin had been in the industry (mostly writing for TV and film) since the 1970s (I think), so I’m willing to bet not only had he spent a lot of time learning the craft, but he likely made good connections — that probably helped him get away with his tomes.

      But, bottom line, rule breakers abound in this industry and many have proven successful. I think you’re absolutely right when you say to write from the heart and you can’t go wrong — I’m sure that’s what Rowling and Martin did!

      Thanks for the congrats, Dianne. I’m super excited about it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I think it’s important that writers KNOW the rules and know how to write well with them. THEN, they can break those rules purposely when the purpose helps their story. Great post – glad to have found you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Succinctly put! I think that literary agents and publishers tend to get so caught up in what supposedly sells a book that they fail to look past the do’s and don’ts and see a story at a different level. Granted, this is a subjective field, and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another person. That’s why we have to make sure we write the best book we can so we can stand behind it, no matter what.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! Glad you stopped by.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I love that perspective, Andrea. I think you’re absolutely right. If all books followed all the rules, then we’d have a bunch of cardboard cut-outs, predictable and bland. And not only would stories never evolve, but authors would never evolve either.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. You raise a great point that tends to boggle my mind more often than not. Does abidance to a rubric take precedence over a gut feeling. I tend to agree that there have to be rules, otherwise you have literary anarchy. This can lead to a volatile entanglement since what we write comes from a place we don’t always see coming and once it arrives we read it and go “That’s the best damn thing I ever wrote!”. Sometimes the feeling is shared by others, and sometimes it’s met with an indifferent ‘meh’- the latter can be maddening if you truly intend on owning that feeling and conveying it as written. Therein lies the sticky part of the label. How do we reconcile the rules with that POW! that comes out of our hands and begs us to leave it there? I guess the answer lies somewhere in the province of “Happy Medium”. Please let me know if you find this place, as my GPS is shit for.

    I love how you write about the process.


    • Literary anarchy, indeed. That’s what I was thinking. We’ve already seen glimpses of that in the self-publishing realm, where authors put up their books just because they can, with no worry about quality.

      I can understand how authors might get so tired from submitting their manuscripts to lit agents with no response. I blame the querying process — most of the “rules” involved there are silly and huge time-suckers. Those rules that leave authors feeling ignored and misunderstood need to change, because no one likes not receiving any kind of response, much less a “Sorry, not for me.” There has to be respect on both sides, and authors get the short end of the stick in most cases.

      “Happy Medium” — yeah, I’ll certainly shoot you the coordinates if I find it.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. ‘Normal readers’ only care if you go off the deep end breaking a rule. I have a beta reader that can’t understand why I change certain things when I rewrite. She says it great before. Then i explain why and she says, “Oh, okay. that makes sense.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Right, I think that some rules are obvious and cannot go by a reader with no consequence should it be broken. But there are lots of rules that writers know about, yet real world readers don’t (as pointed out in JMs post), and this is important to keep in mind.

      I think what it all comes down to is that we can’t please everyone. We certainly need to find our niche, our audience, and give them what they crave, but to not sell ourselves short in the process. No problem!!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I think sometimes a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. In my early writing days, I had a bunch of different people critiquing my work. They were so excited to apply the rules they learned that they sometimes annihilated my writing.

    Rules are like weapons. In the right hands that can reshape a book. In the wrong hands, they can destroy it. Over time, I’ve found a trusted group of beta readers to tell me their thoughts on what works and what doesn’t. Readers who tell me where the flow is off and writers who tell me when I’ve missed the mark.

    I’ve learned you can’t please everyone, but you can tell the best story you can. And at the end of the day, that’s what the guidelines are there for. My favorite guideline ever was from Margie Lawson–“Flow trumps everything.”

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Yep, saw JM’s piece and thought she brought up an interesting discussion. I like how you dug a little deeper here, honey. I think the rules are great for guiding us along, especially novice writers who have never written a novel before and tend to flail through the process.

    But man, oh man, do I LOVE breaking some rules! I was thinking about dipping the toe back into traditional publishing next year with my WIP to see what happens. Haven’t tried it since my first book. I might be too much of a rule-breaker though! We’ll see. 🙂


    • Breaking rules is fun, I agree! And even if we don’t stick with the broken rule through to the final draft, I think that breaking them is a great way to explore the story and hone our writing skills.

      That’s neat news, Britt. Traditional publishing is a viable option for many writers, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t pursue your idea.

      I think that you’ve set yourself a great jumping-off platform with your books and online presence. It might not be easy, but with your heart and writing skills and imagination, you have a better chance than most! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Mathair and I completely agree with you, Kate. Using the rules as a guideline to help curb the monster known as imagination is the perfect marriage between the two things that create novels: technique and creativity. Though we try adhering to the best of our abilities, we’ve been known to break the rules. More specifically with our MC Kevin Yager from The Perfect 7. Breaking the fourth wall to form a solid bond with the readers is something that Kevin’s kind of becoming known for. We can’t imagine Kevin any other way but it has created some problems for us technique-wise. Great post and thanks for the awesome advice. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I bet many rules are broken due to the insistence of certain characters 😉 As authors, we really have to do what our characters command, so that we can find the heart of the story. If this means breaking a few rules, then so be it. We’re exploring the world of our book. There is nothing wrong with that. Thanks for swinging by!


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