Written in Jello: Writing Rules

In the rapidly shifting sands of the writing biz, Somerset Maugham’s famous quote, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.” seems truer than ever. Writers are bombarded with all sorts of rules about writing: revising, submitting to agents, hiring editors; the list goes on.
Writing Tip for Today: You read books, blogs and market guides on writing. You take classes, go to conferences, try to keep up with trends. It seems as if advice not only conflicts, it often is the opposite of what another writer-agent-editor recommends. How do you unearth writing advice that is trustworthy, the final word?

  • Consider the Source. Advice or rules given by authors you love, agents who are on your “A list” or editors who publish books you admire are most likely to dispense information you can use. If you hear conflicting advice, consider whether the advisor is someone you’d want to endorse your book. If not, maybe that’s just an opinion.
  • Respect the Classics. Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing or anything by Gary Provost are reliable classics that still hold up. Refer to them often for solid writing advice on craft.
  • Read Widely and Often. Study books that are coming out. If you argue that the Bronte sisters or Herman Melville successfully used a writing device, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a contemporary book by you which uses same device will succeed too. If you are asked why you wrote a certain way, at least you’ll be able to point out that a precedent exists for that method.
  • Don’t Let the Rules Rule You.  Writing rules are really guidelines to help you write in a way that the most people can understand. Don’t succumb to a “fad” or writing trend, such as omitting quotation marks, just because it’s a rule. For instance, the current trend is to keep dialogue attributions (he said) minimal. The “rule” says you should always substitute a sentence of action, inner thought or body language for the he/she said. While it’s a great idea to remind readers of the total scene and not only the dialogue, some writers have taken this to extremes. We don’t want to read “he expostulated,” but we can throw in a “he said”now and then without losing the reader.
  • Writing That Works, and Writing that Needs Work. Above all, you have to find what works for you and for your readers. Some writers seem to feel that the more enigmatic their writing the better. If you’ve tried a style or method which just makes your readers scratch their heads, it’s not working for anybody except you. Unless you want to be the next Nostradamus, write in a way that is easily understood.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

4 comments on “Written in Jello: Writing Rules

  1. Writing that works is the lesson Ive been learning lately. Ive had to rework my style to get the best out of my MS. It’s been difficult, but I want the reader to have the best experience while also hearing a valuable message. It’s not easy, but Im growing.
    Really like this post.

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