three writing rules i loathe

Also known as: a brief list of the trends in prose that I refuse to take as my bible come hell or high water.

I should probably warn my readers that I despise hard-and-fast rules when it comes to creativity. These confines of art that are meant to guide beginners are a hindrance and put a false barrier between what is considered ‘good’ writing and writing that’s effective. The moment someone starts saying, ‘you should never do this’ I’m out the door and running. Or possibly beating them up, one of the two. Violence might not solve anything, but it sure makes me feel better. 😉

1. Show, Don’t Tell.
I don’t think you can get my hackles up faster than to quote this mantra at me. It is the speediest way to earn my undying hatred.

Showing involves imagery, in covering the things that are important by action and setting, in focusing the camera on some things and not others. Telling is information usually given in narration. Sometimes showing is better. And sometimes showing makes the most tedious, convoluted half-assed scenes that it’s been by displeasure to try to wade through. Please, just tell me, and get to the interesting parts. And who decided that narration was bad, anyway? Who said that showing and telling is inherently divorced from each other, that there is no showing in telling, or vice versa?

Try this instead. Put in the details that you need. Let the audience work a bit when you think that there’s enough in the scene to draw extra conclusions. Make your work interesting. Get test readers, and see if they have the right reactions to the right events.

2. Don’t use any narrative verbs but ‘said’.
This depends entirely on the style that you’re using and the tone of your story. There are times replied, answered, asked, repeated, and explained are perfectly valid, and more precise than ‘said’. Some people find these words obnoxious. It must be tough to be them.

3. Write for your genre, and don’t break the established conventions. It’ll make your book harder to sell.
Sometimes this is true, I suppose. I write fantasy, where the point of the genre is innovation. What’s the point of writing if you’re not going to write something new? I see this one as a cousin of the phrase ‘there are no new stories’. To those who are convinced that this is a good point, go read ‘House of Leaves’, by Mark Z. Danielewski. Go read ‘Bridge of Birds’, by Barry Hughart. Try ‘Grey’, by Jon Armstrong. I won’t read books that aren’t innovative in some way.


I think what I’m trying to get at is that these conventions are artificial. Think of writing as a craft that needs to be trained and honed, figure out what techniques work for what story. Write effectively, ignore what’s supposedly ‘good’.

Any other obnoxious ‘tips’ that I’ve missed?

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5 thoughts on “three writing rules i loathe

  1. Pet peeve: “Flowery prose is bad”. Only if it’s written badly. Depending on the story, it can do wonders. I also despise the tendency to label any piece of description as purple prose and therefore the antichrist of writing.

    Oh, and the whole “cliches are bad; never use them under the penalty of death” school of thought.

  2. I think a lot of these “rules” are helpful guidelines for people who’ve never written before. Once the writer has gotten a bit more skilled at writing and no longer needs the training wheels of those rules, they can break them without writing awfulnes. In other words, there’s a time and a place for them. That time and place might not be in your story, but that doesn’t mean they’re worthless.

    The first rule is one that I find very helpful for my own stuff. I don’t slavishly adhere to it, but being mindful of it helps my writing from being “As you know, Bob” or flavorless or whatever.

  3. Gotta admit, that even though I like to “show not tell,” I get tired of it. With all the “showing” going on (a sad reflection of our media-driven culture, if you ask me), a bit of narrative is refreshing and even desired.

  4. It all depends on the story– as a very rough guideline, the show/tell rule is useful to keep in mind, even. I do a whole bunch of showing in my book. It fits better. I have another book in mind where telling might be appropriate for long passages (though I should admit, ‘The Marionette’s Waltz’ is highly experimental– I may focus on that one when ‘Blue Crystal’ is done).

    What gets really aggravating is when you try to get critiqued by these indoctrinated writers who mark down all the places where you use narrative and clamor for changes, because it’s ‘wrong’.

  5. What gets really aggravating is when you try to get critiqued by these indoctrinated writers who mark down all the places where you use narrative and clamor for changes, because it’s ‘wrong’.

    Ugh. I get frustrated with books that tell instead of showing because a lot of time telling falls flat. You know, don’t tell me someone is happy, demonstrate it. I shouldn’t have to take the author’s word for it, right? The text should carry it out. BUT that doesn’t mean that there’s never a place for telling, and marking something as “wrong” simply because it breaks rules is sstupid. It’s only “wrong” if it doesn’t work or is unclear.

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