“Secret Writing Rules” and Why to Ignore Them…

by Anne R. Allen

Somerset Maugham famously said, “There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.”

But pretty much everybody you meet in the publishing business will give you a list of them. (One is “never start a sentence with ‘there are’” —so watch yourself, Mr. Maugham.)

Some of the rules show up in any standard writing book or class, but others only seem to get circulated in critique groups, conference workshops, and forums.

They’re a secret to everybody else.

But you’ll run into them sooner or later. In a forum or workshop, somebody will tell you with schoolmarmish assurance that you MUST follow these secret writing rules to be a successful novelist.

Nobody knows exactly where these rules come from, or why so many great books have become classics without following a single one.

Don’t get me wrong: many “secret writing rules” involve useful tips, but if you follow them rigidly, you’ll end up with wooden, formulaic prose that nobody is going to want to read.

As Ruth explained to us earlier this year, we need to know basic writing guidelines, but not follow rigid rules. And I’ve written a number of times about ignoring the “writing rules police.”

It’s good to learn these rules—because it’s way more fun to break them when you know what they are. But then go ahead and smash them with gleeful abandon.

My Unfavorite Secret Writing Rules

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24 thoughts on ““Secret Writing Rules” and Why to Ignore Them…

  1. Kudos for writing this. There, I’ve used a phrase instead of a complete sentence! One of my beta readers is a real stickler for the rules and told me I couldn’t change POV in the middle of a chapter, for a short paragraph, and then go back to the main character’s POV. I did it anyway, and right now I’m reading a book by Angela Thirkell, written Lo These Many Years Ago, where she does the same thing, quite effectively. I’ve also noticed that A Man Called Ove and Beartown break a lot of the “rules.” It’s time to shake off the MFA crowd and self-appointed experts and write living literature again. Something I’m still working on! (Uh oh, I’ve used an exclamation point, a real no-no; uh oh, I’ve used slang, another no-no….) Etc.

    Liked by 1 person

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