My Golden Rules of Writing

book photo NRGuest Post
by Nicholas C. Rossis

Writers seem to fall into one of two camps: Those who love following the rules and those who love to break them. My view? The rules taught in workshops and classrooms only matter to editors and other authors, not readers. So, here are my rules; the ones no fiction writer should ever break.

Rule #1: Don’t let your writing get in the way of your story.

Fragment your sentences. Break the rules. Hemingway is considered the “master of the short sentence”, but when his stories reach a climax, he will suddenly write long sentences — as long as three or four hundred words, even. So, go on. Have fun with the language.

I love everything about English, but I’m particularly enamoured by the language’s flexibility. Its barbarous nature, as John Dyrden characterized it in 1693, is what makes it so appealing to me. I treasure its imperfections, its wildness.

So, do offend against grammar, if that’s what it takes. Be creative. After all, grammar only has one true aim: to make the written word as clear as possible.

Rule #2: Utilize grammar to make the written word as clear as possible. 

Everything else stems from that need. Active voice is more immediate, hence it should be preferred. The same is true of commas. In the example of:

“Let’s eat Gramma” vs. “Let’s eat, Gramma”

It is a comma that separates vegetarians from cannibals. However, use of the (in)famous Oxford comma seldom alters the reader’s comprehension. Just use commas consistently throughout your manuscript, and I promise you: there’s a grammar book somewhere out there swearing that your way is the only correct one!

Rule #3: Creativity Trumps Conformity

English in the sixteenth century was a mangled thing, the natural result of having eight conquering peoples add to its vocabulary and syntax. This trait continued with the Bard himself, who made up many of the words we use every day, such as arouse, bet, drug, dwindle, hoodwink, hurry, puke, rant and swagger.

Then, certain clerks and clerics in the eighteenth century took it upon themselves to craft a “Queen’s English” by inventing rules designed to shoehorn English into “properness”. The problem was, they stole the rules from Latin, which is why so many of the grammar rules make little or no sense.

The moral? Be creative and daring in your use of English. You will hardly be the first.

Rule #4: As long as it has a beginning, a middle and an end, it’s a story

We humans are simple creatures. We love our stories, our myths and our tales. Since ancient time, as long as our ramblings have a beginning, a middle and an end, they’re accepted as stories.

So, stop worrying if commas in your story are misplaced or you use more passive voice than you “should”. Stop fretting that you start your lines with a gerund, or your book with a dream. That your sentences are fragmented. Or that you start with conjunctions or end with prepositions. These aren’t even real rules.

Rule #5: Be fearless

Many writers are constrained by a further rule: “write about what you know”. Why? We can all write about the common, usual, boring, ordinary character. The trick is to make this conventional character do something incredible without making this act appear out of place. Don’t constrain your imagination unnecessarily. Write about what tickles your fancy; what gives flight to your imagination; what you’d like to know, but never got a chance to.

Rule #6: Write for yourself

If you write for yourself, readers will see the authenticity of your writing and love it. Write the kind of book you would love to read. Not the kind you think your readers might enjoy. That is what people really mean when they say you should find your voice.

Rule #7: You are the gatekeeper

For decades, writers were constrained by publishers and agents serving as gatekeepers. Then, the walls came tumbling down, and the writers found themselves free: they could reach their readers unimpeded. Unsure of how to handle this new-found freedom, many writers still seek the approval of the old masters, refusing to publish without someone’s stamp on the book jacket.

My feeling is that, were publishers so good at predicting success, every book they published would be a best-seller. They’re not.

So, stop trying to impress editors and agents. Instead, write to the best of your abilities. Hire a professional to handle editing and proofreading. And when you’re done, share with the only people who really matter: your readers.

Nicholas Rossis loves to write. His first children’s book, Runaway Smile, is currently being illustrated. He has published an epic fantasy series, Pearseus, as well as The Power of Six, a collection of short sci-fi stories. You can learn more about Nicholas on his website and his Author Central page.

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34 thoughts on “My Golden Rules of Writing”

  1. Great piece. He had me until, “Hire a professional to handle editing.” Hire a proofreader for obvious unintentional mistakes, sure, I agree. But hiring an editor goes against all of the wonderful advice he just gave us because a professional editor, no matter who she is, is going to be following someone’s (the Queen’s, Oxford’s, Chicago’s) supposed “elements of style” to kill your babies, help you actively write what you know, focus your writing to a particular audience, blah blah etc. … Traditional or independent. You can’t have it both ways.

    1. LOL, you rabble rouser, Frank. 🙂

      As a disinterested third party (I’ll call myself a potential reader), I’m torn. That’s because I could take the overall premise of the piece two different ways.

      Taken to the extreme, my reaction was not unlike Frank’s. If your goal is readers, there are certain rules that need to be followed. For example, if an author decides he or she is going spell words how they want to and refuse to conform to how the dictionary (US or UK, I’m okay with either) says it should be done for any word, I’m not interested in reading it and I suspect the vast majority of readers will feel the same.

      But another interpretation of what Nicholas is saying could be summarized with a couple cliches. One is that there are very few ironclad rules of writing, only rules of thumb. For example, those who have read King’s “On Writing” are very familiar with his thoughts about using adverbs, yet I’m sure if I searched he does sometimes. Maybe they do weaken a sentence, as he says, but possibly you want a weak sentence. Which leads into the second cliche, you should know the rules and the reason for them. At that point you can also know when is a good time to break those rules. The Hemingway example of sentence length might be a good example. He knew that shorter sentences are, as a rule, easier to read and clearer in intent. (This is a lesson I need to learn.) However, as pointed out, he knew when to break all the rules of sentence length. When he did that, it was for a specific purpose with full knowledge of breaking the rules and an understanding of why he was doing it.

      1. Big Al, you indirectly raise an important question: why does an author write? One one extreme, we have Joyce’s Ulysses or Proust’s Temps Perdu, with their obvious disregard for the reader. On the other, we have the identical, mass-produced prose spewed forward by authors following the exact same rules.

        Personally, I strive to find a middle way, where my work is neither so high brow that one needs a lifetime of studying to read it, nor like everyone else’s. 🙂

    2. Frank, I think he meant that you hire the editor to pick up the errors you don’t know you’ve made, the errors you don’t WANT to make. If your pro editor also picks up your intended “errors” (things you don’t personally see as errors) it’s easy with modern technology, to simply not accept those changes.
      I used a pro editor and he used MS Word’s “track changes” feature which means all his changes had to be accepted by me before they actually change. I had to go through the entire thing and either accept or decline each suggested change. I accepted about 80% of them only. My editor told me that was fairly normal and exactly what he found when his own work was edited. He was the best for my work because he got rid of a lot of the unnecessary flab in my writing.

      1. Tui, you’re right. A good editor will help you clarify your manuscript, by pointing out where what you write may differ from what you mean.

        My editor also uses “track changes”, allowing me to dialogue with her on the specifics of each suggestion. Also, I think it’s crucial to find an editor who allows your writing voice to develop and emerge, instead of shoehorning your writing into blind rule-following.

      2. I hear you, Tui. That makes sense to me. It’s just that, to my mind, this minor type of polishing is proofreading. It’s strictly surface and doesn’t require an expert or professional editor.

    3. Gotta take exactly the opposite POV here. The problem with Nicolas’ theories is that every piece of junk that I am asked to edit is the result of some neophyte ( and some not so new) following his advice to the letter. Except the last paragraph.
      The whole point of editing is not to make the writer follow some rigid set of rules created by academics. It’s to give you feedback on your writing relative to what readers expect. Because the moment you do something in your writing (I’m not talking about plot twists, here) the readers don’t expect, they suddenly become conscious of you as the writer. That usually pulls them out of their connection with the story. Which is usually bad.
      A good editor should be telling you, “This is the effect on the reader. Is that what you want?”

      1. I don’t wish to disagree, but isn’t that what beta readers are actually for? Betas are closer to naive readers than a professional editor could ever be.

        That said, I have a brilliant editor so I’m just playing devil’s advocate here.

        1. I use beta readers a lot – not all of them authors themselves. I have found them invaluable to the writing process. But I also use a professional editor. They usually notice different things, as they have different points of view.

      2. Gordon, excellent point. It’s a balance, as I was just telling Big Al.

        My solution is to write freely, then use a professional editor to point out the places where I am unwittingly (as opposed to consciously) breaking the rules. I also use a string of beta-readers to help with developmental editing. It does make the process longer, but it’s worth it.

    4. A good point. Depends on the editor. I’m lucky enough to work with an editor who “gets” me, and does not attempt to change the book to fit her voice instead of mine. She does come up with far more than a simple proofreader would, though.

      Developmental editing, for example, is an important aspect of the process; and one notoriously hard to do yourself. That’s why I think we need a professional to help us: their greater experience will let them see a number of things we will have missed.

  2. I agree with so much of this, but with one caveat: everything we do must serve the story. It must tell the story in as clear and effortless way as possible.That means, agreeing with Gordon here, that anything that pulls the reader out of the story is a bad thing. To my mind, misspellings, misused punctuation, unclear transitions, and pronoun confusion all contribute to that unwanted pull. I say, don’t follow the rules because they are rules; follow the rules when, if, and because they serve the story.

    1. One of the /best/ sci-fi books I’ve ever read was called ‘Feersum Endjinn’ and alternate chapters told the story from the view point of a character who spoke and thought phonetically. 🙂
      I won’t lie and say those chapters were easy reading, but by god they stuck in my mind. And they did serve the story, in a way that a dumbed down, easy to read approach would not have done.
      Feersum Endjinn was not Iain M Banks’ best selling novel, and the reason is probably easy to see, but in many ways it was his best work. There is a difference.
      So if we want to appeal to the maximum number of readers then we shouldn’t expect them to work hard. However if we want to leave a legacy that may be remembered 100 years from now, then we should go out on a limb and try and take some readers with us.

  3. Good article and all great comments. I have to agree with Gordon too. A writer needs more from their editor than a proofread. Editors can ask the questions, like, did you mean??

    I see an editor as a new set of eyes, preferably, really mean, critical eyes. They should and do ask questions to make me think. Although I’ve had beta readers ask me things like, ‘What on earth did you mean there?’ and I usually say, ‘What? Can’t you read my mind?’ Ah, no. Readers are not mind readers, they are word/sentence/paragraph,book readers, lol.

  4. Al and Tui,
    To me, editors remind me of that old joke about economists. Put two in a room and you’ll get two very different opinions — three if one of them went to Harvard 🙂

    1. You got a laugh, Frank.

      FWIW, I think when it comes to content editing, that you’re probably correct. At least in a lot of situations. As you get into the more detailed phases of editing (copy editing/proof reading), not so much.

      However, I just thought about your earlier comment regarding style guides. I don’t think the kind of thing dictated by a style guide have a right or wrong answer. If there are multiple ways, all valid, to approach something, then any answer is okay, as long as you remain consistent. Write your own style guide if you don’t like those that are out there or do Frank’s Style Addendum to one of the others to document where you want to be different. If you’re the publisher, that’s always an option. 🙂

      1. Frank, as I’m married to an economist, I didn’t find the joke funny. Now, if you had said that you get a *dozen* different opinions… 😀

        Al, I have tried a number of editors, have attended courses and have read plenty of books. For every expert telling you that X is wrong, you’ll find two who think it’s okay. And one who says it’s the next best thing since pizza slices. This includes copy editing/proofreading (as in my Oxford comma example).

        Many editors try to change your writing style to fit their ideas. I dislike this attitude. Good editors, in my mind, respect your writing. Their job is to help you find your voice, not change it into theirs.

        Having said that, I know authors who like working with strict editors, because they feel safer that way. I say, have the confidence to find your voice and write in it, but that’s just my opinion.

          1. Al, I think you’re confusing “is a style choice” with “ought to be one.” 🙂

            I’ve had people complain because I started a sentence with a gerund (“Stealing a panicked look behind me, I bolted towards the corridor where the nearest elevator could be found.”) They left a review saying the book had been poorly edited. Baffled by this, as I’m rather particular about my editing/proofreading, I asked them for an example. They cited the above sentence as an example of an editing mistake.

      2. Yup, that’s true. It’s just that the big and most consistent complaint I hear about indie writers seems to be about mistakes in spelling and grammar. To me, this are problems for a proofreader, not an editor, and indies need to know this. Because if someone calling herself an editor is charging money for this service, she is ripping them off.

        My main complaint against this piece was that it perpetuates this myth about editing, echoing another blog post from two days earlier on here that made the exact same mistake. In fact, it seems that every blog post offering indie writers advice these days has this same mixed message: there are no rules to writing, and hire an editor.

        Plus, if I’m completely honest about it, I’d say I have an axe to grind with editors in general, when it comes to indie books. I suppose this is because I don’t really like what editors in the traditional publishing model have done to books over the years. IMO, they’ve created a new corporate novel, a product-book written by a committee of experts (along with the actual writer) that doesn’t edit for clarity and quality but changes (from cover to content) the book entirely for what they think (or what their research shows) readers want. This leads to formulaic garbage – which is exactly what happened to Hollywood films, too, that follow the committee model.

        But, thanks to Amazon, we’ve seen that the traditional model is a failing model. The publishers, despite their industry knowledge, can’t predict what book will be a hit or a miss. Their successes and their money are typically tied to “big discovery” books written by celebrities or pop-culture writers with a built-in audience like Lena Dunham. Mid-list writers are running to self publish.

        As an indie, I don’t want to follow this model any more either because all I’m doing is attempting to emulate a failing business model from an industry that rejected me in the first place. If I hire an editor, a proofer, a book cover artist, a blurb specialist or whatever bogus services are out there for indies, the best I can ever do is to become a junior varsity of the traditional publishing world, where people will say, “Wow, this is the best indie book I’ve read.” “This is not too bad for an indie book. I’m surprised a real publisher hasn’t picked her up.” Even Hugh Howey, the Holy Grail of indies, when interviewed about his success or his opinion on the marketplace, or begrudgingly placed on their best seller lists, the media always reminds the readers that he’s an indie, a self publisher.

        I just wish indies would embrace the “self” in self publishing and, instead of desperately emulating the traditional model and trying to blend in, try to stand out. Be different. Do things your way. Write your stories your way – not by committee. Do the very best work you can and polish polish polish it, get it professionally proofread if you have to. But make it your work, your message, your way. And Raw! Isn’t that what this “experiment” was supposed to be about? Self Publishing! I say do it your way, stop turning to advice from the fleeing castaway editors and experts from the dying traditional model that refused to open your query or couldn’t be bothered to help you in the past. Take pride in your work and this kind of literary flea market that, as quickly as it opened to you, could close down again. Now, since I’m offering advice instead of just ranting, I might as well finish with: Remember, there are no rules to writing — and proofread your work. 🙂

        1. I’m no expert, Frank, but I thought grammar fell under the duties of a copy editor. (Spelling, IMO, could also get done there, but the proofreader or proof readers are looking to shake those out, too.) I made a comment in Melissa’s post the other day that I think a lot of misunderstanding and confusion among indie authors, readers, etc come about by calling a proofreader (who I’m sure we agree shakes out remaining spelling errors, typos, punctuation issues, etc) an editor. While I’d call proofreading the last phase of the editing process, I wouldn’t call the person who does it an editor. However, a copy editor or a content editor, I would. I think indie authors sometimes hire one person thinking they’re going to do both kinds of editing and also expecting they won’t need any additional proofing. That’s a recipe for problems.

          I think when you’re talking about editor above and creating the corporate novel, you’re referring to a content editor. In that regard, I agree. While I think getting feedback from others (beta readers or equivalent) to make sure your overall story works is a good idea, I’m not convinced that it is necessary to hire such a person. At least in my mind, as someone who hasn’t ever written a novel (so I’d understand if you thought or even said I was full of it), that much of what happens at that level is as much a matter of taste and opinion as anything, with the result being a lot of samey books coming out of the traditional publishing houses. (I can argue why samey isn’t necessarily bad, at least in their case, but will save that for another day.) I have seen feedback from editors on manuscripts I’d read before they went to the editor and that experience only strengthened this opinion.

          1. This is what sort of what I mean. I’ve never seen a blogger offering rules on writing who swears you need an editor then explain what that means. They typically say an editor is essential, but that’s it. They don’t even mention that, apparently, there may be different types of editors with very different jobs, and that I may need to hire up to 5 of them (a committee) to cover all of the essential job tasks of editing. To me, this is bogus. There are only two jobs: editor and proofreader. I wouldn’t hire anyone to edit or proofread who doesn’t understand this. I like this description of both jobs (which gives grammar to proofreaders), but writers should be aware that you may have to ask for a job description of the professional editor you’re hiring to ensure that you don’t need to hire more essential people to help you write your book –>

          2. Hi Frank,

            Thanks for the interesting link (I thought it particularly ironic that it has a typo: “Do you tends (sic) to use the passive voice too often?”)

            You’re right, editing and proofreading are two different things. Along with everything else mentioned in the article, editing includes anything from developmental editing to PoV. You may wish to hire a different editor for the various aspects of writing, but that does seem like overkill!

            I guess that would be a matter for a different post, though – or the 750 word limit should have been increased to at least twice as much! 😀

        2. Frank,

          I agree that some editors will prevent an author from ever finding their voice. However, this depends on the editor and the author. It’s all about chemistry and finding the right person for you. I’m lucky enough to have found someone who manages to fix my writing with a gentle hand.

          As I always say, I believe that most authors will become hybrid ones within the next few years. Also, I have the feeling that Indies are rapidly becoming more professional in their approach. I can see this from everything, from book covers to editing and typos.

          These two factors will deal the final blow to any prejudice against Indie authors.

  5. Bravo! I suspect you have an unspoken rule in there somewhere about knowing the rules before you break them, but….with that small caveat, I agree 100%!

  6. Hi Nicholas, sorry for being so late to the party, but I’m pretty much always late; it’s usually after midnight here, down under, before I manage to read and comment on IU posts. I found myself agreeing with most of your article but swayed back and forth on a couple of points, which in fact have already been picked up and commented on by some of my fellow IU colleagues and regulars.

    So, rather than rake over points already covered I’ll just say well done young man, excellent post, I like the cut of your jib, and welcome to IU.

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