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?