Writers: why don’t you tear up those rules?

There are three rules for writers, according to Somerset Maugham, but unfortunately nobody knows what they are.

Only three? You can find hundred, no millions, out there.

  • Kill your darlings!
  • Show, don’t tell!
  • Start late, leave early!
  • Never use an adverb!
  • Never open the book with the weather!
  • Cut! Cut! And cut again!

Ten rules for writers

The Guardian, in 2010, asked 27 well-known writers to give us their 10 rules for writing fiction. I warmed to Helen Simpson who did not follow the given format but said

The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying ‘Faire et se taire’ (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as ‘Shut up and get on with it’.

Flaubert’s travel diary

Among these rules there is a great deal of wisdom and good advice. Neil Gaiman’s first rule is simple:


Or not so simple.

Here are a few others, some of which are more advice than rule.

Read Keats’s letters. (Helen Dunmore)

The first 12 years are the worst. (Anne Enright)

Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life. (Esther Freud)

My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work. (Philip Pullman)

Rules for other creative, artistic workers?

I am intrigued. Why are there so many rules for writers? For no other art form are amateurs given so many instructions, or thought to want or need them. A Google search came up with more than 6 million possibilities of rules for writers., 500,000 for sculptors, 1 million for composers and slightly fewer for artists.

That’s six times as many rules for writers as for any other category. If I could create a chart I would insert one here to make the point visually.

Perhaps the reason that everybody, well 6 million people, feel entitled to provide rules for writers is because everyone, it is said, has a novel in them. And it is also said that those who can do (that is, they write), and those that can’t (write) teach, or in this case tell everyone else how to write.

Why rules at all?

There is a strong belief that writing can’t be taught. It is quite common, although you would never find people who suggest that musicians or artists shouldn’t have lessons.

Most rules for writers are behavioural. They imply that only people with certain behavioural characteristics can write. The rules include words and phrases such as honesty, self-discipline, hard work, attention to detail and so on. The ability to endure rejection is often referred to. The word never appears with frightening frequency. So does avoid. The consequences of sometimes or embrace are not revealed. Don’t do this, always do that! On and on. The tone is moralising. Avoidable.

Here are more. Some of these are tongue in cheek, and make good points.

Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire. (Geoff Dyer)

Don’t drink and write at the same time. (Richard Ford)

Write only when you have something to say. (David Hare)

Work hard. (Andrew Motion)

Finish everything you start. (Colm Toibin)

Advice not rules

Of course many writers interpreted the idea of rules as advice and offered some useful thought. Neil Gaiman (again):

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true of writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it the best you can. I’m not sure there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

So with Philip Pullman’s only rule (above) in mind I’d better get back to my proper work.

My rule for writers?

Only follow a rule for a good reason, otherwise transgress.

And your rules?

Do you have any rules to offer? Or comments on the topic of rules for writers?


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Filed under Writing

2 Responses to Writers: why don’t you tear up those rules?

  1. I was just browsing the web when I came across your blog, and I have to say it’s really interesting. Writing rules really beat up my head real good, but everything’s all clear to me now. Thanks a lot.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for your comment Swen. Do what feels right to you and don’t worry about rules. That could be rule itself. Caroline

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