Learn the “Rules of Writing” and then Break Them

Whenever I witness (or unwittingly engage in) an argument over writing style and rules (“NEVER head-hop!” “Don’t use dialogue tags!” “Don’t use contractions in formal writing—ever!”) I laugh a bit, only because these conversations usually betray a participant’s a) skill level or b) arrogance or c) lack of confidence.


Here’s the thing. A great writer knows the rules and skillfully breaks them, line by line, experimenting with variations in structure, voice, and tone. A great writer also understands her audience, imparting a sense of awareness to the work so the piece doesn’t meander into self-indulgence.

But these so-called rules of writing exist so we all understand each other, at a very basic grammatical level, without leaving ourselves scratching our heads and questioning the writing quality. There’s a difference between writing well and writing to market. Here’s an example:

One individual challenged me to find a work where a writer included two speakers in one paragraph. He argued that it is “too confusing” for a reader and breaks some such rule of publishing. The funny thing is it’s very possible (and very common) to have two bits of dialogue in the same paragraph; in fact, this happens in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest:

They put the graphite salve on his temples. “What is it?” he says. “Conductant,” the technician says. “Anointest my head with conductant. Do I get a crown of thorns?”

Careful readers understand there are two speakers presented here, McMurphy (the gentleman subjected to the anointment) and an anonymous technician. The conversation moves along swiftly, perfectly timed to highlight a maybe-crazy person’s descent into forced electroshock therapy. And, PS, I was not confused.

What my self-proclaimed opponent failed to see was that great authors understand that there are RULES (like using periods for sentence stops and capital letters for proper nouns) and then there are the “rules” that are broken to fit within a particular STYLE. Skilled writing also doesn’t speak down to an audience; no reader wants to feel “dumb,” but instead wants to come away from a book or short story or memoir or what have you and feel like they stretched their limits and gained something from the story beyond a brief love affair with its characters.

So, remember that writing rules are merely guideposts. Even grammatical conventions can be successfully broken if done intentionally and with sensitivity to the reader. While we’re not all meant for high-brow literary fiction or quasi-philosophical poetry, recognize the difference between basic writing skills and grammar, versus writing within an established style.  Writing is more art than science. I’m sure Faulkner would agree.

You’re Never Too Busy to Write

pexels-photo-210590.jpegTime seems to disappear into a black hole for many of us, leaving us little time to sit down and focus on writing. Or does it?

Ideas and little insights pop into our heads throughout the entire day. Many of those fleeting thoughts are actually writing topics in disguise, tidbits begging for our attention. But we’re always driving somewhere or meeting someone or reading something else, so we let those potential great ideas flit out of our minds and become just more mental white noise.

That’s sad because we have the technology to record these ideas but people believe writing’s some mystical, magical event, happening behind closed doors with muses and mythical creatures.

Here’s a secret: That’s totally wrong and this is why:

  1. There’s no such time as the “perfect” time to write.
  2. You don’t have to write for hours on end to be successful.
  3. You need no fancy equipment to jot down ideas.
  4. Writing to completion each and every time is not necessary.

High school and college essays took the fun out of writing, turning it into a chore rather than a fun creative outlet. Through institutionalized assignments, writing became an hours-long unpleasant task, but here’s another secret:

Writers write however and whenever they damn well please.

When I can’t write but I have an idea, I record it as a voice memo on my phone or type it out (internet acronyms and all) in my iPhone’s stock notepad app. If scribbling it on a scrap of paper or leftover receipt works for you, do it. Sitting at Starbucks and notice the quirky way the barista hands out iced coffee with her left hand and hot drinks with her right? Make a note. Suddenly gifted with a flash of insight about a traumatic childhood experience? Write it down.

Don’t pressure yourself to flesh out the entire idea. Keep the notes close by and when you’re ready, pull them out and marvel at how much you wrote. Then take those thoughts and expand on them or work them into your next piece.

I feel like the culture surrounding writing–you need a fancy Moleskein notebook, a fountain pen, a special app–discourages would-be writers. Haute writing accessories are fun, but do not a writer make.  Instead, if you’re feeling “too busy” to put thoughts to paper (or screen), remember that success doesn’t mean finishing a blog post a day, a week, or a month; it means you take small steps that bring you closer to working out a real writing plan.

Writing Warm-Ups: Stretch Your Mental Muscles

pexels-photo-210661.jpegI sat at my kitchen table this morning, attempting to dive right into a client’s article. But my brain, despite caffeination, couldn’t put one word in front of another and coherently tout the benefits of my client’s services.

I considered switching to another piece I’m working on, dismissing that idea because I’d end up in the same foggy state. So I considered doing something I’d learned at my workshop: start with a warm-up!

Before beginning my workshop, I always placed writing prompts in warm-ups in the realm of high school, college, and fiction writers, not necessarily due to arrogance but because I didn’t think they’d work for me. I’d look at some prompts (“Your phone rings and it’s an unknown number. What do you do?”) and groan at the level of creativity needed to complete the task.

But today, I tried it. I randomly chose a topic (“Describe the weather outside”) and set to work. Ten minutes later, I successfully stretched my writing muscles and eased into my client’s work. And behold, the benefit of stepping outside my comfort zone was fully realized.

I believe writing is like exercising. There are metaphorical muscles needing stretched and gently prodded into activity, regardless if your niche is nonfiction or fiction. I ended up moving from the mundane “It’s snowing outside in March” to a more expansive discussion on how snow days as a child affected me differently than as a parent. Sure, I reached at times, but it was better than doing a practice session on a client’s article or a blog post!

I’m now convinced that prompts and warm-ups should be part of a writer’s toolkit. Moving forward, I’ll start with daily exercises to ease into writing, using them to clear the sleep and distractions from my brain and start working on the fun stuff. The next time you’re struggling with a blank page or half-completed article, try taking a break and giving yourself ten minutes with a prompt. You may find yourself better focused and ready to write.

Want to improve your writing skills? Pick up a book!


Reading is my refuge from daily stress, a fun source of entertainment and a way to escape into other worlds. Reading refreshes my mind and refuels me when my word bank feels depleted.

If you’re struggling to write, it’s helpful to review what you’ve been reading (if anything at all).  I firmly believe that what you read reflects how well you’ll write, just like how good athletic technique can make a difference between running faster and farther.

When I want to practice literary techniques, I read novels fitting that style. When I’m focused on copywriting or web content writing, I hunt down high-quality examples and study the author’s techniques. There’s no such thing as too much reading, so read widely and often–you’ll soon find yourself naturally absorbing new vocabulary, writing tricks, and formatting methods.

I also enjoy reading works outside of my typical style because it permits me the chance to experiment within my niche. Since, for example, I’m not one to add heavy dialogue to my literary works, I will read masters of dialogue-driven novels so I can understand how it’s properly done.

One hint: Try not falling into the “reading only what’s on the Internet” trap. While the Internet can be an excellent source for well-written material, it’s best to step away from blogs (yes, even mine), news articles, and other online media, since it’s not always of the best quality. It can also be distracting. Plus, ‘net writers often pick up or perpetuate unfortunate grammar habits that don’t translate well to professional writing, so always read online articles with a critical eye.

Don’t have time to read? Try picking up a collection of short stories or essays. Most can be consumed in one sitting and offer interesting perspectives on a variety of topics. Audiobooks are another option that can sharpen your writing skills while you’re doing other things.

Reading doesn’t have to be a chore, but it should be a part of any budding writer’s toolkit. And, if you’re wondering what I’m reading right now, it’s a collection of Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales. Nothing like some Gothic horror on a snow day in Spring!