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RULES! Rules! ruuuuules! Confused by All the Rules? -- by Donna B. Comeaux

          Are you fed up with grammarians and critiquers who constantly tell you don't do that, do this?
          Me too!
          But like everything in life, rules exist to navigate us to our particular destination.

          I'm certain most of you have grown weary of the following: 

          •         Never begin a sentence with And, But, or Because

          •         Never end a sentence with a preposition such as with or of

          •         Avoid these modifiers:  very, more, quite, like

          •         Avoid "to be" verbs:  be, is, are, am, were, was, been, being

          •         "Show" don't "Tell"

          •         Write in active voice (AV), not in passive voice (PV).  For example: 

                    I lost my drivers license.  (AV)

                    Rather than:

                    My drivers license was lost [by me].  (PV) (See page 61 of Style1.)

          •         Avoid overuse of pronouns such as he and she

          Rules sometimes confuse us, give us a headache, cause us to open a window and pitch our computers down two flights of stairs.  It's not that rules are meant to self-impose or inflict someone's superior ego.  It's just that there are so many of them.  Even if we meticulously follow each and every one, critiquers will continue to find errors in our writing.  With all the well-meaning restrictions, the writing process really does tempt you to open that window.

          Here's what many people don't tell you—

          Rules are important, but never more important than a good story.  A good storyteller can break four out of ten rules and still have an audience so captivated that most readers won't even notice the infractions.  The story plot is tight, characters well-rounded, and scenes so action-packed that no one bothers to count the four pronouns used in a single paragraph or the split infinitives.

          If no one has ever shared the secret, let me be the first:  It's all about the story.

          Writing is more about good storytelling.  When written with consistency, balance, well-developed characters who are flawed, even unlikeable—but convincingly so, you can keep a reader turning the page until The End.  However, a good writer gives a great deal of thought to bending and breaking the rules with calculated precision. 

          About a year ago, in disgust I shadowboxed imaginary foes and pushed away from my computer.  There was a war going on inside me and I wanted to hit someone, anyone, punch them right in the face, throw a book or two at any and everyone that represented the publishing world.
          In all my madness, stubbornness wouldn't free me of my need to write.  So, I pulled one book after another from my library.  I even dug into classics and thumbed through them for hours.  In a fit of rage, mainly because none of the books proved helpful, I pulled recent publications off the shelves.  They included writers such as:  Tami Hoag, Judith McKnaught, Sandra Brown, John Grisham, Toni Morrison, Mary Proulx, Tolstoy, Hemmingway, Steinbeck,Twain.  Unsatisfied, I flipped through English books I studied in school—those English books that have about 30 or more stories and poems and plays inside that you're required to read and analyze.
          Know what I found?
         There wasn't one writer that obeyed all the rules.  Not one.
          It dawned on me that I couldn't use any of these writers as an example to write well.  I toyed with the idea that maybe my collection of stories wasn't good enough.  After all, too many of the writers used passive voice, or used "had had" (which I hate), opened their chapters with "to be" verbs and threaded them throughout their entire book.

          Then, I found something I didn't expect.  (I really do mean for you to pause after that comma.)  Since I had read most of these books through and through, I realized they all had one thing in common.  The writers told great stories.

          So, what are we to make of all the rules?

          First, know the rules.

          I know what you're thinking.  You're ahead of me, aren't you?  Rules are made to be broken.  You're right.  They are.  Everyone breaks them.  But the most important thing to remember is that you must know the rules before you take the liberty of breaking them.  We tread dangerous waters when we write without any regard to what is acceptable.  This carefree style of writing will only disappoint you and foil your attempts to support yourself as a writer.

          Second, you must develop a clear understanding as to why the rules exist in the first place.

          For example, rules are simply trying to unveil one important fact:  you're breaking the rules too often.  Repetitively breaking the rules will make your manuscript sound flat.  Don't believe me, take another look at that chapter someone just critiqued for you.  Prove me wrong.

          Here is an example from my manuscript entitled, Red Satin Ribbons:

          Two open suitcases sat near the door. Curious, she leaned forward. On top lay a pair of shorts, a wool Christmas sweater, blue jeans, and two sleeveless shells. She chewed on a broken fingernail and wondered where she'd decided to go. She didn’t remember planning a trip and didn’t feel like traveling even if she had. When she relaxed on her pillow, she caught glimpse of the damaged wallpaper. Melba gasped. Who would . . . ? Then she remembered. She sunk in bed, closed her eyes, and covered half her face with the sheets.

          The critiquer's comment:  Lots of "she" starts.

          After confirming that I had overused "she" NINE times, I revised the paragraph as follows:

          Two open suitcases sat near the door. Curious, she Melba leaned forward. On top lay a pair of shorts, a wool Christmas sweater, blue jeans, and two sleeveless shells. She chewed on a broken fingernail and wondered w Uneven fingernails scaled over her bottom lip.  Where had she'd decided to go? She Melba didn’t remember planning a trip and didn’t feel like traveling even if she had. When she relaxed on her Her back hit the pillow. , she caught glimpse of the A glimpse of damaged wallpaper made Melba gasp. Melba gasped. Who would . . . ? Then she remembered. She sunk in bed, closed her eyes, and covered half her face with Shame and horror sunk pressed her body deeper between the sheets.

          So, I ask you:  Is the overuse of pronouns a valid rule?  You bet it is.

          Third, when deliberately breaking the rule, give meticulous thought as to how many times you plan to do so.  As I've said before, break the rule too often, and you run the risk of losing your reader.  Pay close attention to this warning.

          Fourth, listening and reading are essential to becoming a good writer.

          You must become a better student by listening to good advice and reading good books.  Many of us want to venture into writing by doing it our way, regardless to the advice of grammarians and critiquers.  This attitude can set you up for failure and leave you wondering why everyone else is publishing but you.

          For instance, some choose to write the way we talk.  Many don't realize that writing the way we speak doesn't always go over well in print.

          Fifth, know your audience.

          You don't want to fill your manuscript with complex sentences and large vocabulary words if you're writing teen fiction.

          Sixth, use as many resources as your money can buy.

          Be resourceful by buying used reference books.

          But let me caution you about paying for services that help you with these writing rules.  Many websites exist solely to solicit monies from you for the very things we can learn on our own.  I look at it this way:  if a site is advertising to help with eliminating pronouns, I will enter eliminating pronouns in my search engine and research this until I find "free" advice.  One site may "not" offer as much advice as you like, but a collection of sites may give you all that need.

          Don't, however, limit yourself to the internet.  Keep good reference books at your fingertips.  Reading is the best advice I can offer you.  READReadRead.  Read good books.  And don't limit yourself to one genre.  You'll be surprised what you can learn from other writers.

          The following books have proven useful for me.

          •    Edgerton, Les  (2007).  Hooked - Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Let them Go.  Cincinnati, OH:  F+W Media, Inc.

          •    Heehler, Tom  (2011).  The Well-Spoken Thesaurus - The Most Powerful Way to Say Everyday Words and Phrases.  Naperville, IL:  Sourcebook, Inc.

          •    Little, Brown & Company Limited. (2nd ed.).  (1983).  The Little Brown Workbook.  Canada.

          •    Plotnik, Arthur  (2005).  Spunk & Bite - A Writer's Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Lanugage & Style.  New York, NY:  Random House, Inc.

          •    Ragno, Nancy  (2011).  Word Savvy - Use the Right Word Every Time, All the Time.  Cincinnati, OH:  F+W Media, Inc.

          •    Williams, Joseph M.  (9th ed.).  (2007).  Style1 - Lessons in Clarity and Grace.  Chicago, IL:  University of Chicago. 

          •    Yagoda, Ben  (2013).  How to Not Right Bad Rite Bad Wright Bad Write Bad - The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them.  New York, NY:  Riverhead Books (Penquin Group USA) Inc.

Happy writing!


Donna B. Comeaux

Author, Poet, Novelist

Selfish Ambition -;


Posted by Donna B. Comeaux 16 Feb 2016 at 00:16
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Responses to this blog

Chaine 16 Feb 2016 at 14:15  
I remember hearing someone read a piece at a class I was attending. She read about eight sentences in a row that started with the word 'she'. The story was of a girl in fear for her life who was being chased by bad guys. She ran, stumbled and got lost in a forest. All of the sentences were very short so the repetition of the word 'she' was even more intense than it would have been if the sentences were long or varied in length. According to 'the rules' the story should not have worked, but it did. The writer managed to keep my attention fixed on what was happening to the girl by the repetition of the word 'she'. The piece was well written and the excitement and tension was good and well maintained.

I think there must be many occasions where the writers of critiques point out that 'rules' have been broken but fail to understand the reasons for breaking those rules. If we had a way to explain why this happens I'm sure it would benefit everyone. When we receive a critique we politely say 'thank you' but we miss a potential opportunity to help our fellow CC members by explaining why the rules are breached. To try to help someone in this way may have the effect of generating bad feelings on the part of critique writers who had done their best to write a good critique. I have given this impasse a lot of thought but have not come up with anything near an acceptable solution.

I am often known to quote from Elmore Leonard: 10 Rules for Good Writing. People sometimes retort by saying they don't want to write like him but as he explains (the clue is in the title) these are his rules not yours. He is giving us the benefit of his expertise and experience; he's not telling us how to write. I do believe the last thing he say in this tiny book is true for all fiction writers 'If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.'

Thank you for a great thought provoking blog.

Comeaux 16 Feb 2016 at 15:42  
Chaine, thanks for sharing your experience with a story that used "she" repetitively and how nicely it worked. It proves the point that becoming a good storyteller is important.

When I give critiques, I do my best to explain my edits. Then I brace myself for the fallout that comes from those who don't get it.

Over the last year, I've come to realize that in order to give a great critique, you must take a deep breath then take your time. Often, I've found that if I only have time to critique half of someone's story, do so, but make sure whatever half I critique it is thorough. And that includes inserting reasons for my edits. I am finding more and more that writers are responding favorably to critiques that are explained in depth. And they're very appreciative of the time spent on such thorough critiques.

So, in the end, I'd rather critique six paragraphs thoroughly than to read an entire story and give a summation filled with attaboys.

Again, thank you for your response. It's nice to know that someone broke the rules effectively.

Onalimb 16 Feb 2016 at 18:27  
I think it unfortunate that most of the 'rules' are couched in terms of "don't" and "never." It makes them sound like absolutes, when nothing could be further from the truth. Those who know only a few 'rules' often wield them like a mallet. Many complaints about 'rule-breaking' aren't. They're the result of the critter not possessing a full understanding of the 'rule'.

Asking people to explain is a wonderful suggestion. It might make people think a little more about what that rule is supposed to do for them.

Myra 17 Feb 2016 at 00:44  
I know that when I write there are a few rules I always fall back on.
You can't write the way you talk...
Every word counts, so take out the weasel words!
And if it reads like writing then you need to re-write.

If I have kept to these three rules...well then, who cares if I break a few proper rules along the way!
Vmuia 17 Feb 2016 at 14:32  
I think it's OK, even good, to break the rules to make a point. It's not OK to break them due to (1) laziness, (2) ignorance, or (3) arrogance.

An editor once advised me to try not to use 'get' in my writing. I'm forever grateful; I find that my writing is stronger without 'get'. Sometimes it takes time to come up with an alternative, Sometimes I can't come up with an alternative. The result is always worth the effort. I didn't like 'felt', 'saw', etc before I learnt they (and 'get') are called filter words. I didn't like changes to POV before I knew it was a rule to adhere to one POV in a scene. I started trying to avoid 'knew' 'wondered' 'thought' etc after reading this article by Chuck Palahniuk, and again I thought my writing was better without these words.

I honestly believe the rules do more good than harm. I also believe they should sometimes be broken. But (there.) as the article says, it's important, not just to know the rules, but to understand why you're breaking them. It doesn't say (1) stick to what is easy (laziness) (2) if you can write a sentence you know the rules (ignorance) or (3) nobody should tell you how to write, damn it (arrogance).

Oh, one more thing. Sometimes it's difficult to explain why I feel writing the sentence this way is better. I do my best, but when I can't come up with reasons, I propose my version and hope the author will get my point, even if s/he doesn't agree with me in the end.
Foolberry 17 Feb 2016 at 15:32  
I don't like those rules. I don't think they're good rules. Of the seven rules you quote, five of them are very dubious. Only "show, don't tell" and "write in the active not passive" would be generally accepted as rules, and both of them are best delivered as advice and have a broad range of exceptions.

The 'She' example is very interesting and informative, but the logical conclusion of that exercise is surely not: Don't overuse 'She'.

It might be: listen to what you write. It might be: be careful of repetition.

I think writing is so difficult that writers often use a perceived set of rules as a crutch. They think that as long as they are not breaking their rules then they are doing alright. But it often means that they are focussing on the wrong things.
Vmuia 17 Feb 2016 at 16:05  
But why do you subscribe to those two? Why, and how, should we select which rules are worth following and which ones aren't?

Foolberry 17 Feb 2016 at 17:23  
I don't subscribe to those rules, but they are widely circulated. The others, less so. And how we should select which rules to follow and which not is exactly the problem. Your're surely not suggesting that we should follow any rule that anyone suggests ever. Of course not - that would be ridiculous. So how do we decide what makes the cut? Many of Elmore Leonard's rules are clearly jokes, but people persist in quoting them.

And people misapply rules. When your editor suggested that you use the word 'get' a lot, that was because you personally used 'get' a lot. The rule is not that people should not use the word 'get'. I don't need to cut the word 'get' out of my writing because I don't overuse it. I overuse the words 'just' and 'little'. Those are the words I need to eradicate. It isn't a rule that got me to that knowledge, it was attentive reading and individual crits.
Vmuia 17 Feb 2016 at 17:54  
You're right; I'm not suggesting that we follow any and every rule.

When I tried the two I mentioned earlier, I found that I liked the results. I've also mentioned rules I subscribed to before learning that they were rules. Eg changing POVs within scenes.

What would the world come to if everyone did as they saw fit? Of course, murder is much graver than the passive voice. Still, I think the attempt to study and prescribe what works in writing is a good thing. For the most part.

No, I didn't overuse 'get'.

Foolberry 17 Feb 2016 at 18:00  
If you don't have to follow them, then they are suggestions and not rules. Suggestions are always welcome.

To study what works in writing is highly commended. Not so to proscribe.
Huzcotoq 17 Feb 2016 at 21:34  
Hi Donna,
Your arguments are clearly presented and convincing. One of my favorite books on the craft is by Sol Stein, who says that "readers want an experience" —and that should always be at the forefront of our minds when we write. Rules are a means to that end. If we let rules become an end in themselves, the reader's interest will wane.

I believe strongly that the creative component is primary. Write as if there were no rules, only a story to tell; and then edit as if there were no story, only rules.

Thanks for sharing.

Terrydp45 18 Feb 2016 at 01:22  

I happened to read your blog on CC this morning about RULES! I nearly fell out of my chair. Like you, yesterday, I was ready to throw my computer out the door.

I'm on three different workshops and receive so many sets of rules that my head spins sometimes. I realized yesterday that I was so busy following rules that I wasn't sure how to write anymore. So I said the heck with it.

Back when I was 36 in '90, I started competing in Northwestern State Universities fiction contest. I placed several times, won first place some. About 12,000 copies of my stories are out there somewhere. What surprised me was when all of the Lit teachers and others around the university would stop me and ask me to never stop writing fiction. Well, life happened and I took a long break.

What I found in my return to online workshops was that things had changed. I found myself playing "catch-up." In trying to satisfy the RULES, I told myself yesterday that I stopped writing what so many others liked about my writing years before. It was the storytelling that I was leaving behind. Now that I am aware of the rules, I can move forward. I may stick to most of the rules along the way. If not, I'll find out. Either way, like you said, it's the story that counts.

Thanks for the blog report. I had to grin when I read it.

Terrydp45 :}
Comeaux 18 Feb 2016 at 02:21  
Aaah, Terry, what a testimony! So happy you're not giving up on your writing endeavors.

Demonqueen 18 Feb 2016 at 14:35  
I totally agree with your point that story telling takes precedence over everything (unless it's literary fiction). And I say there's no such thing as writing rules, only techniques. Learn them and what they do, then you'll know which ones to apply in your writing. I'm definitely in support of that.

However — apologies! — there's a couple of points I do disagree with.

I don't believe that many of the greats put a great deal of thought into breaking and bending the rules with calculated precision. It makes novel writing sound far too clinical and procedural to me. I think in many instances they are authors who know how to tell story (which I absolutely agree with you there; strong story telling outshines many a technical error), and they have a natural instinct as to what sounds right with no consideration of whether they were breaking any perceived 'rule' or not (bearing in mind a lot of these rules are a quite recent literary phenomenon.) Of course, if you are saying that a good knowledge of general grammar and punctuation is adhering to the rules, then yes, most great authors tend to have that. I'm sure there are authors who labour over every little decision of word choice and why they are breaking the rules, I just don't believe it's as rife as people make out. Some writers just know it's good as it is without taking rules into consideration.

There are some people who can pick out a tune on a piano because they have a natural ear for music, and I think the same can be said for writing. Both can be learned, but some people just have the instinct. That doesn't mean they shouldn't exercise some technique for the sake of clarity or tidiness by any means, but I do think that the 'the experts know the rules so they can break the rules' has become a bit of a worn-in mantra, just like 'show don't tell', without much consideration as to whether its true or not.

The other point I would maybe argue against, depending on which age group you specifically mean, is dumbing down text for teens. I think this vastly underestimates their abilities to the point of patronising them, and falls into a mentality of not encouraging them to aim a little higher in what's attainable. Obviously I'm not suggesting you write reams and reams of overly complex language and to hell with it, but Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bones is aimed at fifteen-year-olds (and upwards) and she uses vocab I'm not familiar with, yet her trilogy is extremely popular in YA fantasy romance. She writes in a way that is easy to follow, and doesn't convolute her concepts by overloading her paragraphs with complex words. In other words, it's well balanced. But at the heart of it, there's a really strong story and believable characters.

In saying that, I do totally agree that you should know your audience, but don't think that is a consideration when you first start writing. As you develop, the 'I write for me' becomes 'I write about the things that interest me for the enjoyment of others.'

Still, good post, and it certainly can pay dividends in your writing to learn about why some techniques (or lack of) are deemed a no-no.
Wringale 19 Feb 2016 at 20:35  
Hi, thank you for this wonderful article. Writing is a fun but also a lot of work. Especially for people like me who has English as a second language. We need to learn all the rules of grammar on top of other writing rules. Sometimes, I feel my writing being stilted when I try to apply ALL the rules I've read. It's nice to know that I don't have to follow each and every rule.

Thanks for the advise!
Rickalpha3 5 Mar 2016 at 08:19  
The two most important rules . . .
1. There are no rules.
2. Never ever forget rule number 1.

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