Saturday, January 24, 2009

Saturday Soirée - Writing rules

Rules direct and guide us. Rules keep us organized. Rules foster efficiency and productivity. I have nothing against rules. But rules can be a stumbling block to our creative spirits, tripping us up and throwing us down as we fight to free our selves and cast our hearts and our words on the uncertain waters of the writing sea. Rules can be tall, thick walls that keep us out of the success arena, until we have paid dues and done time. Rules can be a real pain in a writer’s behind.

So how do we deal with the rules of the writing game without throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water?

Know the rules. Heed the ones that fit our personality, our lifestyle and how, when and where we work. Adopt those that encourage and enhance our writing styles and our writing process. Work with the rules that motivate us to stick our toes out the door of our comfortable place. We focus on those that have a positive effect on our writing - teaching us discipline, keeping us motivated and inching us along the path to our writing dreams.

Bend the rules. Some of the existing rules don’t support our efforts, our inspiration or our need for adventure but with a little tweaking, they just might work. We could bend them a little at first. Throw in a loop and a couple of turns to see if we get a better fit. We could play with them one way and then try another and another. Before we decide certain rules are not for us, we should give them a chance to prove themselves - to see if they could help us become the kind of writers we want to be.

Example 1: Write what you know. Maybe what you know is the very thing that’s driving you to write outside the box and full throttle into something far removed from your experience. You’re an adventurous soul and what you don’t know tugs at your heart. If that’s you, this rule is not for you.

Example 2: Write as soon as you wake in the morning. Writers who hold down 9 – 5 jobs, have toddlers to care for and other commitments may barely get to breathe in the morning. As soon as they open their eyes they are on the go. Writing during their lunch hour at work or while sitting on the toilet at home while the children do homework, play or get ready for bed, might be more their style. If that describes your life, then do that, be content with that, own it, embrace it. It is your time. Bend the write-in-the-morning rule; write at a time that suits your lifestyle.

Break the rules. Some rules are just way over the top for some of us. We have a saying here in Trinidad, "Pick sense out of nonsence," and that's what we have to do with writing rules. From the moment we read or hear certain rules, we know they won’t work for us. We have to break them outright. SNAP! Forget them ZAP!

Example 3: A writer writes everyday. Yeah right, with 3 kids (ages 8 months, 3 years and 7 years), a husband in Iraq, a fulltime job, night classes, PTA and church responsibilities, in which lifetime? Maybe that is your response or something close to it. You decide when you will write. Maybe your mother, sister or friend can only take the children on weekends, maybe only on Saturday evenings for two hours. Is that your only time, your best time, your free time to spend by yourself and writing? Claim it. It is your sacred time. Forget the write-everyday rule. Once a week is perfect for you. It is a better and more productive time because you can give writing your undivided attention and your full heart.

Write our own rules. The world is replete with people who are living and succeeding by their own rules. Writers can do the same. Some have and many do.

I'm not a rule-breaker by nature. In fact I'm more of a color-between-the-lines kind of person, borderline OCD and mildly adventurous. My usual first response is to go with the rules. That's not bad. it is a good place to start. After awhile, as my confidence grows, I shimmy close to the line and step over every so gently. Then if I feel comfortable, I'm off and running buoyed by a few rules of my own.

Some of the rules we write by today were coined by people who probably dared to do things differently, to follow their own hearts, sing their own songs and dance to the beat of their own drums. We have the same right.

When it comes to writing (like other forms of creativity) we should use the rules that work, bend some to fit our lives, our writing style and process, break those that don't work and write our own. After all it is our writing isn’t it? Even if we're writing for someone, we’re the ones doing the writing and in order to write better and smarter, only the best rules, the most appropriate rules will do.

I’ve only shared three of the more common rules. Do you know the ones that work for you? Which rules can you bend to fit the shape of your life or break out right? Come on in the comments section and share some of the rules you’ve written and used to help you achieve your writing goals?


Cheryl Wright said...

One rule I keep: Build a relationship with edtors, past and present.

I stay in touch with editors who publish my work. It takes a little effort to keep correspondence short, sincere and professional without being too friendly or pushy.

Over the years keeping that rule has garnered me repeat assignments and ongoing columns.

One rule I break (sometimes): Editors are busy people, send an email and wait patiently particularly when it is an editor you've never worked for before.

When I break that rule, I call ahead for the name of the approriate editor. I speak to the secretary or assitant and let them know why I am calling and ask for a date and time to call back to speak with the editor. The secretary or assistant I speak is always pleasant, understanding and helpful. I make a list of the questions I want to ask. Then I call to speak with the editor.

This is not something I practice very often. I break this rule very cautiously and with a tinge of fear only when it entails a feature article or column on a topic I am insanely passionate about.

Joanne said...

Love the ideas going on here, esp to write your own rules. I think that thinking with innovation helps move our writing forward. Now, let's see. A rule I've made and need is that in order to blog successfully, one needs a calendar of posts planned out. For me, this works and is critical! A rule I expand on is Write What You Know. I enjoy doing research on various topics to deepen characterization, and so though I may not have knowledge of a topic, I use what I know from research to paint more layers onto my characters.

Joanne said...

Cheryl, I also want to thank you for your kind thoughts this past week. My daughter and family are feeling much better and are so thankful for everyone's well wishes. Much thanks!

Cheryl Wright said...

You're welcome.

Cheryl Wright said...

Good. Everything is back to normal. You have blest this post with your virtual presence.

Thanks for taking the nudge and sharing your thoughts and practice with regard to writing rules. I appreciate your input, as always.

Jeanne Dininni said...


This is a great post--very encouraging and helpful to writers as we continuously strive to develop our own style and voice. It's very freeing to know that we needn't allow ourselves to be forced into someone else's "perfect writer" mold.

Every writer must be true to him/herself. We must each express our gift in our own unique way or risk becoming a carbon copy of another writer. Becoming a carbon copy of another writer--even an exceptionally good writer--means only one of us is needed! Besides which, we can only maintain our charade for a short time before we find ourselves chafing under the restrictions that are preventing our natural creativity and personality from shining through in our work.

I love your idea of bending, breaking, and/or rewriting the rules. I also agree that we must first know the rules and understand the reasons for them if we are to accurately and intelligently determine when we may wisely break, adapt, or re-invent them.

I often re-engineer writing rules such as the following:

"Be concise."

"Eliminate adjectives and adverbs whenever possible."

"Avoid passive voice."

My detailed, analytical writing style is simply incompatible with brevity, except perhaps for periodic snippets of it which I use for variety or to add dramatic impact to a statement. On the whole, I tend to write long, rather complex sentences, though I often vary sentence length to achieve the most satisfying result.

I believe that both adjectives and adverbs can add richness and color to language which would be sorely lacking without them--but only when they are used judiciously. For example, using modifiers to eliminate the need for highly descriptive nouns or lively verbs is counterproductive, weakening, rather than strengthening, our work.

I also believe that passive voice has its place, and I'm never afraid to use it when it suits my purpose--though I do try not to overuse it. Passive voice can provide an authoritative, clinical, detached, or exalted tone which is highly appropriate for certain types of writing. It allows us to state facts in a non-threatening manner and often provides a refreshing rest from the unrelenting drive of active voice. Does this mean we'll use it all the time? Not at all. For the majority of our writing, active voice will likely pack just the right punch. Yet, at the appropriate times, passive voice will serve its purpose well.

My post on conventional writing wisdom, which I wrote a while back, attracted quite a bit of feedback from other writers. Most agreed that following convention for its own sake is not the way to go. So, it appears that you and I are in good company with our re-engineered writing rules!

Thanks for a great post!

Cheryl Wright said...

Jeanne how wonderful to have you visit and puttering around leaving comments.

By the way, because my style is so different, I enjoy reading your "detailed, analytical writing style" and find your "long, rather complex sentences" a refreshing change.

Annie Evett said...

I loved this post. thanks for sharing the 'rules' - yes busy mum with kids - it just doen't fint some of the rules we come by...

Cheryl Wright said...

You go girl! Write your own rules to fit your life and accommodate your passion.

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