Most of us learn to write based on a set of rules. Those rules come from handouts distributed by our grade-school English teachers, tips from bestselling authors, and the style guides we display proudly on our bookshelves. Everyone wants the recipe for Good Writing.
But no amount of checking boxes or following rules will guarantee good writing. It can actually fool us into thinking our work is complete when we have a long way to go. Much like the English language as a whole, writing rules only apply until we need to break them.
Sometimes the rules will help us. Other times they’ll hold us back. Only experience will teach you when it’s appropriate to break a rule. If you aren’t sure where to start, try experimenting with these four.
Write a story no one has told before.
Most popular music draws from a very limited set of chord progressions. And yet, people have very passionate opinions about their favorite music. No one would argue that we don’t need Despacito because we’ve already heard the chord progression in Toto’s Africa. The magic happens in the execution of your idea.
Familiarity can also work in your favor. Some genre fiction — romance is a good example — actually expects a certain plot formula. Readers won’t know how to relate to something that wanders too far afield. Don’t twist yourself into knots trying to find a plot no one has ever seen before. Instead, focus on the qualities that will make your story truly unique: your characters, setting, and writing style.
Show, don’t tell.
While no one likes to read prose that’s all tell, you can’t show everything. Think of this rule more like “show what’s important, tell the rest.” Contrast in the level of detail and description will establish a hierarchy to help readers direct their focus.
Also, avoid over-zealous “show, don’t tell” writing when describing emotions. A main character’s quickening heartbeat can have many causes: joy, anticipation, anxiety, or fear, to name a few. She might close her eyes and sigh before answering a question because she thinks it was a stupid question or because she’s been dreading giving the answer. Readers often won’t know what’s happening in your character’s head unless you tell them.
Don’t make your ending too neat.
Full disclosure: I’ll never totally break this rule because I can’t stand neat endings myself. However, our distaste for too-neat endings can tempt us toward artsy, mysterious, or cliffhanger endings that will drive readers crazy. Your ending should provide enough closure for readers to imagine a reasonable path forward. The ending doesn’t need to be happy, but it ought to make sense and fit with the rest of the book.
Write every day.
I’m a huge fan of daily habits — and I’ve learned the hard way that we all need a break sometimes. Don’t get sucked into the idea that you need to write every day to be a real writer.
That doesn’t mean you should look for excuses to slack off. Making yourself do the work even when you don’t want to is part of the game. But so is maintaining balance in your life.
For example, I’ll try to leave my laptop in my backpack on a short weekend trip to visit family and friends. If I feel totally drained, I give myself a day off. I don’t expect myself to keep churning out new pages when I’m deep in the weeds editing a manuscript. I write almost every day, with an emphasis on the almost.
By all means, write every day you can. But don’t miss out on once-in-a-lifetime experiences to cram in your daily word count.