Ten writing rules I obey … and you should too!

Yes, I know, how dare I rant about  writing rules (a lot) on this blog and now tell you to obey these ten?! But today’s posts is about some of the writing rules I’ve scientifically tested and found useful. (Seriously.) Unfortunately, I rebelled against some of these far too long, and I kick myself for that. This list is certainly not exhaustive; these are just the first ten that came to mind. If, in the future, I decide I was wrong about some of the ones I’ve previously dissed, I’ll let you know.

Show, don’t tell. This is one rule I must have learned subconsciously from reading good writing. I obeyed the rule pretty much by instinct, albeit imperfectly. One place I tended to falter was in writing emotional scenes. My critique partner Kasie West brought it to my attention. She said, “Don’t tell me how to feel in this scene, just show me how your character feels, and I will feel it too.”

Never use three words when one will do. This is one of my delights in writing. I love to take a good sentence and pare it down to its essence, thereby creating a better sentence. Make every word pull its weight. Watch your use of adverbs and adjectives, as these are clues to places where you can probably find a stronger word to take the place of two or more weaker ones. (Notice I did not say never use adjectives and adverbs.)

Avoid passive voice. Yes, of course, there are times when passive voice works, but use it rarely. You can almost always strengthen a sentence by rewording to remove the passive. (Ha! I first wrote that last sentence in passive voice and had to edit! :-))

Vary sentence length. I can’t remember where I first read this, but the rule was that usually you should start a paragraph with shorter sentences, use longer in the middle, and then shorter again at the end. I don’t always do that, but I always try to avoid repetition of too many sentences of equal length. Good writing has rhythm and flow.

Read your work aloud. I don’t like to hear my voice. Also, since I spend most of my writing time alone, I felt ridiculous talking to myself in an empty house. But once I got over that, I found that reading aloud helped me refine the rhythm and flow I spoke about above. Listen for the music. Reading aloud also helped me spot quite a few typos.

Print it out. Like the rule above, I resisted this one. I’m an ink and paper miser, but my eyes can take reading on a monitor for only so long. So, I started printing out chapters to edit. Lo and behold, clumsy sentences, typos, paragraph length, and a dozen other things I missed on the virtual page, jumped off the printed page. [Update: If you have an e-reader, upload your writing to it and read it that way, which also helps you spot errors.]

Use “creative” dialogue tags sparingly. I believe this is more acceptable in some genre writing, but in general, “said” or “asked” should be your most used dialogue tags. If you want your reader to know your character raged, then make that evident in the words and gestures he uses. If you want your character to say something sweetly, have her smile and bat her eyelashes. I do occasionally allow myself a “whispered.”

Make every plot element count. Be “ecologically” sound and use every bit of your wordage. If you give us a character or setting detail, make it meaningful to the whole story. In my novel The Brevity of Roses, when I first introduce Meredith, I tell the reader that she grows roses, but that’s not just a meaningless detail. Gardening is essential to understanding her character, and the imagery of roses, and what they represent, carries through to the last chapter. Every person, place, or thing must earn its right to be in your story and must be consistent with all other story elements, as well as with characterization.

Keep the story moving. This is a touchy subject for some of us because we love lingering in our character’s head, or waxing poetic about the sea, but if we do that too long we risk making the reader “skip to the good stuff.” Learning the proper balance between exposition, description, narrative, dialogue, and summary is an art. One I hope I’m learning well. (Tip: In chapter 6 of his The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes Jack M. Bickham has a good explanation of balancing what he calls “delivery systems.”)

Now, it’s your turn. Do you agree or disagree with the rules on my list? Did I neglect to mention your most important rule?

29 thoughts on “Ten writing rules I obey … and you should too!

  1. I agree. But when I’m writing (and I know I do more poetry now), I get confused because how does one write beautiful metaphors in these simple ways?

    But when I read, I notice that the passages that are the most moving are simple descriptions that when linked together become powerful. How’s that for wordiness?

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    1. Pamela, are saying you recognize what you should do, but have trouble doing it? That’s the beauty and challenge of revision. But for a poet, who creates beautiful, powerful images with few words, I can’t imagine you’re having too much trouble. 😉

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  2. I think that most of the rules you mentioned make sense, although I have a problem with printing out my work. I always end up feeling like it’s a big waste of paper and ink because it gets chucked in the (recycling) bin in the end. So I’ve never quite been able to bring myself to do that step.

    As for “creative” dialogue tags, I used to do that all the time because I thought that using ‘said’ and ‘asked’ all the time were too repetitive. But then I read somewhere that those are the two tags that tend to disappear, as in people read them without registering them. Now those are the ones I use the most, though once in a while I incorporate “muttered”, “whispered,” or something like “yelled” just to mix it up.

    And of ALL your rules, I suspect the “show, don’t tell” is probably the hardest one for writers to follow.

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    1. I felt the same, Chibi, but I’ve seen so many things in print that I didn’t see on the screen that it’s worth it to me now. Someone else suggested changing the font helped them see it with “fresh eyes” but that didn’t work for me.

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      1. Yeah, that is the conundrum, isn’t it? I think I’ll try not only changing font, but moving it into a different program altogether before I try printing it out. Normally I’m not that ecologically conscious, but this is one area I can’t seem to get over.

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        1. Yes, another program would probably help too. I can’t believe how many times I write a blog post in Word then as soon as I publish it, I see a dozen things I want to edit … and I do. 😀

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  3. All of your rules do tend to be the important ones. My biggest problem is balance. I have a tendency to weigh too heavy on the side of description. Not to mention my beats become almost monotone and monotonous because I follow the same patterns. Not that this is bad for short work, but for a novel – YIKES! I blame it all on that little voice that keeps nagging me to be a poet, although I have zero formal training I still tend to be a bit lyrical.

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    1. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, don’t we, Trista? I err on the side of too little description, I think, because I’m wary of using too much. But I’m good at weaving bits of description in subtlety.

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  4. I love this list, Linda. As a paper fanatic, it’s hard for me not to print anything out. I know this is bad for the environment, but at least it has its advantages when it comes to editing, right? ]
    \\\\] (Mr. Cat thought he’d add his two cents there, FYI. I guess he thinks I should be more environmentally conscious?)

    Anyway, I especially love your rule about making every plot element count. Just this morning, in my edits, I thought about how well you do this in your work. It reminded me to chose a more specific detail instead of one without meaning. Then, lo and behold, here’s this post, haha. 🙂 (Side note about Lost: this is also one of the things I appreciate most about that show, that even the smallest details have been chosen for a reason!)

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    1. Thank you for the compliment, Kayla. I learned so much writing this last novel. I plan to go back over some old writing and make every word count in those stories. It really is true that you learn to write best by writing.

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  5. A great list, Linda. I agree with all of them and love his one: vary sentence length.

    On the first day of the novel workshop I’m taking right now, we read the first chapter of E.L. Doctorow’s The March. I noticed right away that he wrote the story using either very long sentences or very short ones, with such a drastic variance in his sentence length at times that I couldn’t help but notice it.

    At first, I wasn’t sure I liked the style. Then, I realized the purpose behind his technique: longer sentences gave the reader a panoramic view from the character’s POV, and the shorter ones filled in the story. As I read more, I saw how the structure of the sentences added texture to the story. Not just variety to keep the reader interested, but texture.

    It’s a great example of a first chapter and incorporates a lot of what you mention above.

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    1. Thank you for sharing that, Christi. I haven’t read The March, but I will read the opening to study his technique. I also vary for texture, but I’m not sure I do it in the same way you described. I love learning new aspects to writing! 😀

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  6. Great rules! I have to say, I still hate the ‘dialogue tags’ one.

    I’m one of those people that notice every. single. ‘said’ and ‘asked’, no matter what I’m reading and it annoys me, so I hate putting it in my own work. I try and get around that by writing in such a way that tags are so seldom used that it’s not ‘overkill’.

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  7. I’ve got one- finish your work. So important for me.
    I need to work on passive voice. I think I don’t fully understand WHAT it is, so seeing it in my writing can be difficult.

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    1. That’s one of the issues I listed for the workshop, Eliza. Passive voice is a hard one because most of us speak naturally in passive. For that reason, I don’t bother about passive in dialogue.

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  8. I agree with you, Linda. English is not my mother tongue but this list is really helpful to improve my writing. I love this one: Vary sentence length. In Javanese, my first language, we are taught that in writing we must prioritize variety – it can be sentence length, sentence structure, words (including the variety of dialog tags), etc.

    Thanks for this great list, Linda!

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  9. My biggest challenge is taking my time in a scene. I tend to have it all fast paced, and that is not good in any genre especially a character-driven one, such as mine. Slow down and set the scene.

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    1. Pacing is something I probably don’t think about enough, though I appear to do it fairly well naturally … except for my my sometimes too fast paced dialogue. But at least I’m aware of that problem now and can watch for it.

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  10. I like ’em! They’re good ones. 🙂

    I’ve learned a lot over the last three years, and I learn something new almost every time I finish another project, no matter the length (lately I’ve been doing more short stories). I learn from my critics, from my first readers, from people I’ve never heard of … man, it’s been a big curve for sure. But I’m getting there.

    I had to figure out how to apply the “Omit needless words” rule from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style to my writing, and learning about adverbs came before that, and then you yourself called adjectives to my attention, and so on and so forth. I’m not a great writer but I know I’m better now than I’ve ever been and that’s showing no signs of slowing.

    I like these rules. I have to learn them better, more deeply ingrain them as habits, but I tend to do that sort of quickly when someone points them out, shows me examples. It’s fun in my opinion, and I think these ten listed “rules” are good ones by which to guide one’s ship through writing waters.

    Bravo.

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    1. Thank you, Darc. And good for you to keep working hard at your writing.

      I love when someone points out a weakness in my writing. Kayla mostly praised my pacing, BUT she smacked me when I rushed through dialogue. She opened my eyes to that and now I’m having fun looking for the evidence of that weakness and correcting it.

      I don’t expect to ever quit learning to write better.

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  11. Parring down the descriptive is the hard one for me. I tend to have a stronger voice in a poetic sense. Doesn’t mean it carries over well in writing fiction. My husband has even said reading my post, ‘If you could just get that – here (referring to my WIP)’, I would have perfected my voice. Hah! Easier said than done. Then again that is the task isn’t it, writing and rewriting till you perfect the words in front of you.

    A lot of good rules here. I’m learning to write every day, may not have a daily dose of usable words, but the scheduling helps keep me on my toes. (Hugs)Indigo

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    1. That certainly is the task, Indigo. A glorious and frustrating one! I use repetition for effect sometimes, but other times I find myself saying the same thing over because I didn’t say it in the best words the first time. That’s the challenge.

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