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How to Learn the Rules So You Can Break Them

I write this article with one important caveat. You need to know the “rules” of writing first.

If you’re a newbie writer, the best advice I can give is to write as much as you can and research as much writing craft as you can get your hands on. If you’re still wondering where you can learn the rules of writing, you’re in a good spot on this blog and you can also check out my website where I post writerly content weekly. I also recommend sending your writing to others for feedback. Critique Partners will tell you when you’ve broken a writing rule, even if they don’t call it out specifically.

It’s so important to know the rules because all rules can (and sometimes should) be broken. They exist more like guidelines, anyway.

If you know the rules, you can break them with intention

If you want to sprinkle in a few well-placed adverbs, alright. If you want a character to look into a mirror and describe what his bad haircut looks like, go ahead. If you want five main characters that each live in a different setting, you can!

Your book is your story to craft and can take any shape you can dream up. Don’t let the “rules” of writing cage your creativity.

Here’s what the writing rules are:

  • Industry standards

  • Best practices

  • Tried and tested tools

However, if we as a society only ever did things one way and never mixed it up, we would have never gone to the moon, you would have to slice your own bread, and we’d still be hand writing our books (ouch).

Market Trends and Reader Preferences Change

If you look at a sample of prose from a hundred, or even fifty, years ago, it will look different than today’s best seller. You might say, “well James Joyce spent four pages describing a setting, why can’t I?”

Writing and industry trends change. We have seen the rise of dystopias, vampires, and faeries to know that fact well. Fortunately, writing rules/guidelines don’t shift as quickly as popular subject matter.

This is why it’s important to stay up-to-date with writing craft and industry insights (and do your research). Balance is key. Understand the present environment, know the rules, and then write the story that you’re passionate about the way you want to write it.

If you break a writing rule, defend it

Everything written in the story should serve a purpose (and ideally more than one). If you break a writing rule and someone calls you out for it, make sure you have a reason why it suits your story best the way it is. Write prose that is purposeful.

Writing is a balance (ha, it snuck in there again). If you break a writing rule, weigh out what it adds to your story or what it could cost.

Benefits of breaking the rules

  • It’s kind of fun. You get to scratch that rebellious itch while leaving the vandalism and highway robbery behind.

  • It can create a compelling narrative. If you decide to tell instead of show large passages of your novel for the sake of maintaining a fast pace, but you do so with a strong voice and an inventive concept, it could all work together to suck your reader into the action.

  • It can add clarity or meaning. Even though you’re often told never to use cliches, they’re so widely understood devices that the use of one might help emphasize a particular point without having to spend paragraphs describing it.

  • It creates something different. People like the unique. If we all write based on a rigid manual, we’ll be stuck in beige-colored literature land. Having something that can raise an eyebrow will stir more intrigue for your story.

Costs of breaking rules:

  • It could turn off potential readers. Some people might not be impressed with your mashup of five genres or that you wrote the story in 2nd person point of view.

  • It could come off as novice. Readers might think you’re inexperienced as a writer if you break some rather glaring rules. Which is why intention is so important.

If you’re going to break a rule, commit to it

Like defending your rule breaking for the strength of the story, you’re going to want to identify why breaking the rule enhances your story. When you break a rule, go all in! Readers are smart and know the rules, even if not by name. Show your intention of breaking a writing rule by having it stick out. Readers are more forgiving and interested in the rule break when they know you’re doing it with purpose.

Hanging a flag or a “lantern” on a rule break makes it apparent and allows readers to feel like they are in on it.

Get in the mindset of rule breaking

Sometimes we get hung up on doing things “by the book”. Even when it comes to our careers as authors. I bet you even have a preconceived path detailing the steps you need to take to grow and “succeed” as a writer. Good news, there isn’t one set path you can take and stories aren’t required to follow the rules.

There is something very liberating in just throwing out those rules out the window. Easier said than done, I know.

For me, I go into any first draft knowing I’ll write it badly. I don’t concern myself with the regiments of superior writing craft. Then while editing, I look at my hot mess manuscript and identify where I’ve broken writing rules. From there, I decide if it works or not. If it does, I own it and flaunt that rule break. If it doesn’t, I either cut it or go back to the rule book and edit until it works.

Meet Laura Savage

Laura is a YA/NA fantasy author, The Writer Community Brand Ambassador and friend to Newbie writers. She is the founder of Newbie to Novelist, which releases content weekly, features posts by guest authors, and has a monthly newsletter. She also hosts a writing/reading series on Instagram live titled, Well Read, Better Written. When she isn’t working full time as a marketing coordinator, she is writing or thinking about writing. Due to her self diagnosed “shiny object syndrome” she constantly has at least two projects going on. Laura lives in the Disney created town of Celebration, FL with her partner and loves that she is only a few steps away from an ice cream shop.

You can connect with Laura on Instagram @newbietonovelist and sign up to her newsletter on her website

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