Advice, Craft, Editing, Fiction, Novel, Reader, Revision, Tips, Words, Writing

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. 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’.


    1. Thank you. You know I should have mentioned that … overuse of dialogue tags period. I use them only when necessary and I write in deep third most of the time, which cuts down on the need.


  2. 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.


    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.


  3. 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!


  4. 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.


    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.


  5. 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.



    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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