There is only one, single decree for you to obey as you write
If you spend any time at all learning about writing and working to improve your craft you will have heard all kinds of advice on what to do or not do. These are often presented as rules, incontrovertible requirements for us to follow. If we don’t, we will commit a cardinal sin of writing—and no serious writer wants to do that.
Unfortunately, after a while, we begin to hear rules that contradict one another. One person says to never do this and another tells us it’s okay or maybe even recommended. As an example of this insanity, consider some of the supposed rules I’ve heard about dialogue tags, that is, identifying the speaker:
- Let the context indicate the speaker so you don’t need to use tags
- Tag every piece of dialogue.
- Avoid tags whenever possible.
- Only use the tags of “said” and “asked.”
- Never use “asked” for a question; use, “said” instead.
- Always write “said” and avoid all other tags.
- You can have up to four pieces of dialogue without attribution.
- Have no more than three pieces of dialogue without attribution.
Plus each person who advocates one of these rules pronounces it with the fervor of absoluteness. It makes my head spin.
These conflicting rules leave me in a quandary of which guru to follow. Whose advice wins? Recently one person who I respect greatly said to not use “then” in a narrative. It is implied and therefore a wasted word. Another person, who I also respect, politely responded, “I disagree,” and I’m sure he was holding back what he really thought.
Through all of this—and it took me too long to figure it out—I’ve realized there are no rules, not really. There are writing guidelines, recommendations, and best practices, but absolute rules do not exist— not really.
Every writing rule I’ve ever heard has been successfully broken by someone at some time. This means that the one rule of writing is: There are no rules.
Now don’t get carried away and disregard every piece of advice you hear on how to be a better writer. Don’t assume you can do whatever you want and get away with it.
Study writing. Learn the conventions. Navigate contradiction, and never assume anything is absolute—it’s not. Whenever possible follow recommendations and adhere to best practices, but don’t be a slave to them either. Know expectations, and if you decide to ignore one, do so in an informed way and for the right reasons.
Now go write, and have fun.
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is an author, blogger, and publisher with over 30 years of writing and publishing experience. Check out his book The Successful Author for insider tips and insights.