Thursday, January 27

Breaking the Rules of Writing

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There are a lot of rules in writing. Some we need to follow to be understood, others are more like guidelines, and still more are things that have gotten lost in translation. Some of them are stated like they were absolutes. Like you should never use adverbs. One comment you'll hear a lot of is...

Once you know the rules, you can break the rules.

Yeah, okay, but how, why, and when is it a good idea? When are these "absolutes" not really so set in stone?

"Knowing the rules" isn't enough. I know how to spell, but that doesn't give me the freedom to misspell everything in my manuscript because I think it'll look cool. If you read my work you wouldn't think, "Wow, she's being really creative with the spelling. She must really know what she's doing." You'd think, "Wow, she didn't even bother to proof this." Or worse, "Wow, she has no clue what she's doing."And that's the danger with breaking rules just because you can. Unless it's very clear why you're doing it, the reader is going to assume you made a mistake or don't know any better. If that reader happens to be an agent, you can kiss that offer of representation good-bye.

Knowing the rules so you can break them means that if you know how to write a sentence, and you understand what a sentence fragment is, then you can write something that uses a sentence fragment in a way that gives it dramatic punch and improves the overall story. It won't just be a weird choppy fragment in the middle of a sentence that makes the paragraph read badly. You can do something that stands out by being "wrong" because standing out allows you to show some aspect of the story you couldn't otherwise do. More info: What's important to know if you want to write.

Let's look at a few more and talk about what they really mean and why.

1. Never use adverbs
Adverbs have gotten a bum deal over the years. It's not that adverbs are bad, but they're so often misused it became easier for the writing gurus to just say, "don't use them." Most of the time new writers use them incorrectly, and by the time we're good writers, it's so ingrained in our heads we never think to question it.

How to break this rule: Just make sure the adverb is the right word for the job, same as you would any other word. They're bad when used poorly, and that's usually a sign of lazy writing. Instead of providing strong verbs and actions to get that idea across, you're tossing out an adverb and making the reader do all the work.  More info: Using adverbs as placeholder words during first drafts, and a more in-depth look at using adverbs in general.

2. Never use: that, just, only, very
These words are just like adverbs (because they are adverbs). They pop into our text because they flow naturally off the tongue. They're also easy to misuse, since often they modify the wrong word. "She only likes chocolate ice cream" has a different meaning that "She likes only chocolate ice cream." The first says she likes nothing else but chocolate ice cream (as in, that's all she likes in the whole wide world), the second says she likes no other flavor of ice cream but chocolate. Just is the same way. And very is often used to modify things that can't be "very" anything, like "very unique."

How to break this rule: More times than not, you can kill "that" from a sentence, but sometimes it makes the sentences read better. Rhythm is an important part of writing, and these small words can go a long way to defining a character's voice. Just and only are also judgment words that work well to anchor a reader in a particular POV. "It was just Larry" means more than "It was Larry." Look at the sentence and read it with and without the word. If it makes sense and reads fine without it, chances are you can kill it. It the sentence reads funny, keep it.

3. Eliminate dialog tags
I suspect this one evolved because dialog tags with adverbs are a common problem. It's also common to see a new writer tagging every single line, even if there's just two people speaking. Or worse, feeling that "said" is being used too much so they struggle to find other words, and end up with gasped, asked, exclaimed, cried, moaned, etc. which start jumping awkwardly off the page. Tags are bad when they start to draw attention to themselves. They're meant to be invisible, which is why said is a great choice. Readers barely even notice them unless there are a lot close together.

How to break this rule: Dialog tags are critical to clarifying your writing. But you want to make sure you're tagging in a way that helps the story not hurts it. Instead of saying "he said" or any derivative of that, try using some stage direction. John shook his head. "That's not what I mean." We see John do something then speak, so we naturally assign the speech to him. Tagging is more than just using a "he said" type phrase. It's all about making sure the identity of the speaker is clear. More info: The basics of writing  dialog tags, and what's right: Bob said or said Bob.

There are more rules and absolutes of course, and I'll go into some others in later posts. Any rules that you've been wondering about?


  1. Hi Janice,

    I'm a really big advocate of the dialogue tags. Said is a gorgeous invisible word, and I don't know how some people can't see it. The stage direction cue is something I use a lot also to break up the monotony.

    I think some people have the issue with said because they feel they need to convey the emotion through dialogue, IN the dialogue. Meaning, when it's said, they feel if they can tag it properly with creative said-isms or adverbs, they don't need to go the extra length to show the feeling behind the dialogue.

    I've recently been told my dialogue isn't too hot by by super trusty critique partner, and I'm on the long road to make my fantasy dialogue sound not as cliche.

    Thanks for posting!

    In My Write Mind

  2. Great tips. As usual.

    Now... to apply them in my work.


  3. I really really love your blog.

    I am sad I didn't get to come see you at your book signing a few weeks ago. I live in GA too and it wasn't too far from me. Alas, I had to work.

    I want to thank you from the bottom of my aspiring-writer's heart for keeping this blog. It has been so helpful to me.

    The rules that I am having particular trouble with are based on POV (btw, your posts on POV have been immensely helpful to me). I am writing in close third person, and often uncertain at the proper way to show her direct thoughts. Italics? Tag it with 'she thought'? I've seen it both ways in novels before, so it seems to be a matter of personal preference.

    Thanks again for your wonderful blog!

  4. Great tips. It's helpful to know when it's okay to break a rule and when we should stick to it in our writing.

    Thanks for sharing!


  5. Great post! On my latest edit I had to purge hundreds of unnecessary thats. It's like a tick.

  6. Excellent points. Rigidly following rules is as detrimental to your writing as not following them at all. But you need to know them. Picasso was a superb draftsman before he experimented with form. But if all you do is draw perfectly, you've got illustration, not art.

  7. Justin: Exactly, and that nagging "will the reader get that I mean is this way?" fear can add to that. Good luck with your dialog!

    Misha: Thanks!

    Elizabeth: Thanks so much! Ah, that's a shame, but I'll be doing more in next few months. I'll be at B&N in March (don't know the dates yet) and I'll be doing a writing workshop at FoxTale Books in Woodstock. (not sure dates here either) Hopefully you can make one of those and say hello.

    Thought tags can go any way you want them. It really depends on how close you want the reader to feel to your POV and what you prefer. So pick the one you like and do that :)

    Tessa: Anytime ;)

    Sarah: Sometimes it's fun just to do a search to see how many of those words get into a first draft.

    Anne: Great analogy!

  8. Ooh! The infamous, "just" always lurking in my manuscripts trying to hide. Loved your "How to Break" the rule explanations. Thanks!
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  9. Thank you for the "permission" to break these rules - we all need to toss things up a bit every once in awhile!

    Norelle Done

  10. Raquel: Thanks! Just is one of my faves for sure.

    Norelle: Happy to help :)

  11. This is GREAT! Thank you for sharing it.

    You talk about adverbs... I struggle with them because I'm a "new" writer. (I've been writing stories since I learned the alphabet, but my current work is my first attempt at writing for publication)So, I will work on cutting back on adverbs. But I do wonder about adjectives. I generally try to avoid more than one per paragraph or thought, but is it okay to use more or should I work on cutting them out completely?

  12. Great question, and worth a post of it's own. Look for it on Monday :)

  13. Oops, make that Tuesday. I'm doing the blog tour figures results on Monday :)

  14. AHA! The rules have been laid out, time to break them. ;)
    Thanks for the tips and examples, I'll put the advice to good use.

  15. Great post! I'm an editor also (academic) and I am constantly removing "that!"

  16. Patricia: Most welcome!

    Meredith: Thanks. Same here :) (the that part, I mean)