Monday, July 03, 2023

3 Writing Rules You Can Break

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Some rules are absolutely made to be broken.

There are tons of rules in writing. Some we need to follow to be understood, others are more like guidelines, and some have gotten lost in translation, and no longer mean what we think they mean. Some are even stated as if they were absolutes, such as, "You should never use adverbs."

It's a lot to remember. However, once you know the rules, you can break the rules.

The trick is knowing which ones to ignore. 

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 know what she's doing." You'd think, "Wow, she didn't even bother to proof this." Or worse, "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.

For example, 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. 

Breaking a rule to make the writing stand out allows you to show some aspect of the story you couldn't otherwise do.

(Here's more on Grammar and You: What You Need to Know to Write).

Let's look at a few common rules and how you might break them:

1. Never use adverbs.

Adverbs have gotten a bum deal over the years. It's not that adverbs are bad, but because they're so often misused, I suspect it’s became easier for the writing gurus to just say, "Don't use them." It's so ingrained in our heads we never think to question it.

They're only bad when used poorly, and that's often due to lazy writing. Instead of providing strong verbs and actions to get an idea across, you toss out an adverb and make the reader do all the work.

How to break this rule: This one is easy—just make sure the adverb is the right word for the job, same as you would any other word. It says exactly what you want it to say, and there’s no stronger alternative.

(Here's more on How to Use Adverbs)

2. Never use that, just, only, very.

These words pop into our text because they flow naturally off the tongue. They're also easy to misuse, since they often modify the wrong word.

"She only likes chocolate ice cream" has a different meaning than, "She likes only chocolate ice cream." The first example 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.

Very is often used to modify things that can't be "very" anything, like "very unique." Unique is one of a kind, You can't get more "one of a kind."

How to break this rule: More times than not, you can delete the word from the sentence and not lose anything, but sometimes it makes the sentence 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 character’s point of view. "It was just Larry" means more than "It was Larry." 

Look at your sentence and read it with and without the word. If it makes sense and reads fine without it, chances are you can get rid of it. It the sentence reads well with it, keep it.

3. Eliminate dialogue tags.

I suspect this one evolved because dialogue tags using adverbs are a common problem for new writers. It's also common to see a new writer tagging every single line of dialogue, even if there are only two people speaking. Writers will also struggle to avoid “said” and use other words to tag dialogue, ending up with way too many versions of gasped, asked, exclaimed, cried, moaned, etc. 

Dialogue tags cause trouble when they draw attention to themselves. They're meant to be invisible, which is why said is a great choice. Readers barely notice said unless there are a lot of them close together.

How to break this rule:  Dialogue tags clarify your writing, but make sure you're tagging in a way that helps the story, not hurts it. Instead of always saying "he said" or any derivative of it, try using stage direction.
John shook his head. "That's not what I mean." 
We see John act 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.

(Here's more on Tag! You're It: Talking About Dialogue Tags)

Just because there’s a rule against it, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. 

If your sentence or scene will be stronger if you break a rule, and its meaning is clear, then go ahead and break it.

Any rules that you've been wondering about?

*Originally published January 2011. Last updated July 2023.

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It)Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structureand the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  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)

  17. Respecting dialogue tags, my late professor, Foster-Harris, at the University of Oklahoma, said that writing is a highly-stylized form of drawing. Writing, then, uses the same principles of drawing. Light, movement and pause (what was the Mona Lisa doing the moment before the famous pose in the painting of her?), shading, and so forth.

    Rather than use tags, he said, boldly, use the principle of motion. "Stop!" She slammed her right fist into her other hand. "Stop!" Or, using light, "Stop!" She flopped her hand over her eyes against the glare of the stadium lights, guessing where to aim next shot.

    This is basically the same principle used in movies. The movement or reaction supplies the character with context. What if we only saw John Wayne's face and heard his voice in his movies instead of watching him lay Maureen O'Hara across his laps and spanking her rump. Talk about interpretation: the older guys in the audience are thinking, yeah, that's what she needed. The older women are thinking Maureen O'Hara finally got what she had coming because her actions are standing in the way of love. And, the young women are enraged at this fat ole-man has-been's abusing his wife.

    All because of light and movement principles.

  18. Whew! What a relief modern writing has moved beyond Mark Twain's advice about 'very' (“Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”)

    1. LOL a fun quote, but not realistic in today's world :)