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Writing Rules

May 19, 2009

Writing is one of those trades/hobbies/activities in which we always a student and nearly always a teacher. I could list many more, but this is, after all a writing blog. As we always teachers, we as a group are prime candidates for boiling our experiences down to rules. Nearly every writing teacher or professor I’ve had has their own rules, whether a formal set they force their students to follow, or an informal set they guide the students with. Likewise, every writer develops their own maxims and guidelines for their own work.

Three days ago I saw a post-it note stuck to a cash register that violated several of the rules I try to follow, so the topic has been on my mind. An with Jodi’s urging yesterday to look back, I thought today might be a good day to examine some of my rules.

Here is a partial list of my writing rules—rules wielded with the understanding that I’m free to break them as long as I have a good reason:

  • You get 3 exclamation points in your writing career—use them wisely: a college Prof enforced this one more than literally, striking down every exclamation mark submitted in his class. His reasoning was solid even if his execution was a little fanatical. He thought that if a sentence, whether dialogue or exposition, needed an exclamation to make its point then the sentence needed some work. Since then I have never consciously used an exclamation mark.
  • A writer’s knowledge should be an inch deep and a mile wide: that is to say we need to be able to speak—or write—conversantly about many, many subjects, but rarely is in-depth information needed, at which point we can research said subject. This was actually handed down by an advertising professor, but I’ve adapted it to writing if for no other reason than it gives me an excuse to read a variety of books on many, many subjects.
  • To write snappy dialogue immediately throw out the first response: If we write dialogue the way it’s actually spoken, we would bore our readers nearly to death. The ums and ahs along with the simple one word answers of everyday speech may be informative but good writing it is not. When a character asks a question, throw out the simple yes or no answer, and give an answer with more depth, emotion, information, or whatever else your scene needs and your dialogue can supply.
  • Do not curse: This one is adapted from advice my father gave me. There’s nothing wrong with cursing per se, but more often than not it’s a a way to cover up bad writing (or bad speaking as it was presented to me). It’s not that I don’t allow my characters to curse—characters have their own semi-free will and they will largely do what they will—but when the writer speaks I will not use profanity unless there really is no other way to say it.

What rules have you scraped together over the years?

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Dale lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his fiancée and four step-children, and spends a good portion of his time trying to locate an absent muse. You can read about him, his family and his struggles at Rough Draft.
  1. May 19, 2009 7:58 am

    I couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly on this list Dale. I have to admit I am a bit of a priss when it comes to swearing and profanities. Like you – even if the characters do I find it very hard to actually write it, prefering to allude to the fact rather than use the words they used.

  2. Jessica Meats permalink
    May 19, 2009 11:32 am

    My novel breaks two of your rules – at the same time. But it’s the character doing it, so it’s not my fault. One of my characters gets fed up with the fact she’s in mortal danger and doesn’t understand why and lets loose a stream of obscenities with a considerable number of exclamation marks.

    On the whole though, unless it’s a parody, only my characters are allowed to use exclamation marks. I’m not.

    One rule I tend to use is start in the middle. Don’t have a long drawn out introduction; start when the action starts. Everything else can get filled in later.

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