Rules For Writing: Beware The Overly Prescriptive
  • There is a formula (of sorts) to storytelling, but that formula should always be framed in terms of principles, and not concretes.

    By concretes, I’m referring to these interminable lists of specifics we so often see, which when it comes to story-writing tell us what to do and what not to do but never give us the principle behind the concretes.

    Here are some actual examples of story-writing do’s-and-do-not’s that I’ve recently read, all of which were taken from real-life editors and writers:

    “Do no begin your story with weather.”

    “Do not use ellipses.”

    “Do not use the word commence.”

    “Do not use the word basically.”

    “Do not use the word very.”

    “Never end a chapter with your character falling asleep.”

    “Never begin your chapter with your character waking up.”

    “Do not use adverbs in your dialogue tags.”

    “Cut virtually all your adverbs.”

    “Never use of if it can be cut.”

    “Never use that if it can be cut.”

    “Never say in order to but only to.”

    “Never use the word would, except to project the future.”

    “Do not use italics for emphasis.”

    “In your dialogue tags, never say said John but always keep it John said.”

    “Never introduce dialogue with John said but always put the tag after the dialogue.”

    And so on, ad-infinitum.

    This method of teaching (if it can even be called that) ignores the method by which the human mind works — which is to say, in principles — and chooses instead to overload the brain with endless commands that come without any real explication of fundamentals but are only demands. And yet it is only by grasping the fundamentals behind any given thing that people will grasp the full nature of whatever it is they’re doing.

    If you grasp the nature of what you’re doing, you’ll never run out of material. Ever.

    If, on the other hand, you never discover the principles behind the specific rules you’re commanded to obey, you’ll never feel secure in your craft and sullen art.

    Indeed I do personally know a number of successful writers who live in fear that they’ll never be able to duplicate their first and even second successes. Their fear comes because they’ve not learned the nature of literature and the principles and the nature of storytelling, though they do have a polished writing style — in large part because they’ve memorizing a great many do’s-and-do-not’s.

    I assure you that every single rule you’ll ever read has been successfully broken by writers whose books endure and will continue to endure. The people who memorize — and, even more, the people who compile — these boring laundry lists don’t write durable literature.

    Timeless literature captures some aspect of the human condition — “the old verities of the human heart,” as Faulkner described it — and the technical do’s-and-don’ts are and always will be secondary, as they have always been.

About The Author

Ray Harvey

I was born and raised in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I've worked as a short-order cook, construction laborer, crab fisherman, janitor, bartender, pedi-cab driver, copyeditor, and more. I've written and ghostwritten several published books and articles, but no matter where I've gone or what I've done to earn my living, there's always been literature and learning at the core of my life.

8 Responses and Counting...

  • Nancy S. Thompson 09.15.2011

    Yeah, I don’t trust or believe in rules. Guidelines, perhaps, but not rules. They just beg to be broken. And while I do agree somewhat with a some of those rules, some are just plain illogical.

  • Hi Nancy. It’s nice to meet you, a fellow rule-breaker. I like your website.

    Thanks so much for dropping by.

  • Bless you for your concise and spot on list of senseless dos and don’ts. I’ve posted about the same thing, trying to explain the difference between descriptive (as in Aristotle describing what he discovered) and prescriptive. I’m still a bit wordy at this point, and have learned more than just (whoops, not supposed to write “just”) the hit list of that which holds us back.

    Why, just the other day I woke up…

  • Bless you, Cyd. And thank you.

  • It’s been beautiful weather here lately.
    I love ellipses and italics. I consider italics to be my much needed sarcasm font.
    And then she basically wandered off to take a nap…

  • Sweet dreams, baby.

    It’s good to hear from you. Thank you for dropping by.

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