Not a fortnight goes by that I don’t read the comments section of an article about writing and find a comment spurning writing rules and advice of any kind and it grinds my gears. “Rules stifle creativity!” they proclaim. “They make you write for editors and not for yourself! Writing is an art and I’ll do whatever the hell I want and expect people to get on their knees and throw their money at me because I am an artist.”
As a book editor, sometimes I take offence, so I’m going to set the record straight about writing rules.
But I’m an artist! Artists don’t need rules!
First and foremost, writing might be an art, but no one thinks of you as an artist. No one even thinks of you as the next Dickens. No one cares about your art unless you give them a story to love. I repeat: No one cares about your writing unless you give them a story to love. This means that, unless you’re writing for your own pleasure and don’t expect anyone else to read your work ever, you’re writing for an audience. Whether you want money or acclaim, you’re writing for an audience. You need to know how audiences respond to certain things, and this is what writing rules and advice give you.
But writing rules stifle my creativity
I also take issue with the fact that some writers think rules stifle their creativity, which doesn’t even make sense. Creativity is using imagination and original ideas to create something or solve something. Think of writing a book like a path. There’s a direct route from start to finish. Add a rule, and that’s a roadblock. You have to find a way to get around this roadblock while staying true to your story. Doing so is exercising creativity. Not doing so is being unimaginative.
To give you a writing example, say your character, who has no prophetic powers whatsoever, has a dream that gives him an idea for solving the plot. He wakes up with an epiphany and dives back into the story. Then you hear a rule that you shouldn’t use dreams to develop your plot, and it’s backed up with convincing reasons.
You could say, “Rules stifle my creativity. I’ll do what I want. Despite the potential for negative reader responses, the dream stays.” That’s stubborn and disregards your audience.
OR, you could say, “This advice makes some good points. I don’t want my audience to have a negative reaction to my story. I’ll find another way to develop my plot.” That is creative.
Or you could say, “This advice makes some good points, but after careful consideration I’ve decided that it doesn’t apply to my story and I’ll keep the dream.”
Because rules can be broken. Especially when they’re not even rules, they’re just advice. But to break them, you have to know why they were made in the first place.
I write for myself, not for an editor
The next complaint I fail to understand is that rules make writers feel like they’re writing for editors. Of course they are, if they’re getting published traditionally. Editors represent publishing houses whose goal it is to sell books. If they don’t think they can sell lots and lots of copies of your book, they don’t want to know you. That’s fair. Don’t pretend you don’t know that book publishing is an industry.
Editors also represent your readers because it’s their job to make your book as sellable as possible. If readers go online and say “we hate one-dimensional protagonists”, OF COURSE your editor is going to tell you to do some character development. Get off your high horse. You’re writing for an audience, remember? Don’t do things that will piss them off.
Further, editors don’t tell you what do to. They suggest, and they back up their suggestions with explanations. If you can’t find a way to incorporate their suggestions while still making your writing your own, you lack creativity. A good editor will never ask you to change your message. They’ll tell you where it’s gone wonky and how to get it back on track.
The reason we have writing rules
So yeah, we have writing rules. But they’re not “do or do not do”. There’s no writer jail where we put writers who write prologues. If you want to ignore rules and advice because you don’t want to work hard to write a great story that your audience will love, that’s on you. If you’re going to ignore what your audience is telling you they love and hate, what works and what doesn’t, what’s trite and what’s trendy, that’s on you. If you’re happy to write what you like and aren’t looking for anyone else to give a damn, that’s perfectly fine. But if you want the stars and sales, you gotta listen to what your audience is telling you. You don’t have to agree with all the advice you read. You don’t even have to use it all.
But understand why we come up with this advice, because rejecting something for being a rule isn’t going to get you far.
I think of rules like best practise for writing. All the writing blogs you see, they’re just a collection of what readers and writers find works well in stories and what doesn’t. None of it is definitive and some people contradict others and some advice works in some situations for some audiences and is completely irrelevant to others. It’s not law, just stay informed.
If you’re not going to take advice on board, your only other option should be to read a lot, and read properly. Because (and there’s exceptions to this rule as well) to make money in this industry, you need to be able to tell a good story. Learn what that means.
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