What is the One Immutable Rule of Writing?

There is only one, single decree for you to obey as you write

What is the One Immutable Rule of Writing?If you spend any time at all learning about writing and working to improve your craft you will have heard all kinds of advice of 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. The one rule of writing is: There are no rules. Click To Tweet

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 – because 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.

Quotes About Writing From Long Ago

Here are three more quotes about writing to offer us encouragement and perspective:

  • “The secret of good writing is to say an old thing in a new way or a new thing in an old way.” -Richard Harding Davis, journalist and author (1864-1916)
  • “There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write.” -William Makepeace Thackeray, novelist (1811-1863)
  • “A writer — and, I believe, generally all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.” -Jorge Luis Borges, writer (1899-1986)

Do any of these inspire you in your writing? What is your favorite quote about writing?

Seven Quotes About Writing

Last week, I shared some biblical advice to writers. Here are some more items to ponder:

  1. “Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation.” – Laurence Sterne, novelist and clergyman (1713-1768)
  2. “One day I was speeding along at the typewriter, and my daughter — who was a child at the time — asked me, ‘Daddy, why are you writing so fast?’ And I replied, ‘Because I want to see how the story turns out!'” -Louis L’Amour, novelist (1908-1988)
  3. “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” – Benjamin Franklin
  4. “In a given year, more people make a living as professional baseball players than as novelists.” – Thomas Smith
  5. “Don’t rewrite – relive.” – Ray Bradbury
  6. “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” – J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
  7. “Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.” – Pearl Strachan

Write on!

The Bible Advises Writers

I am a student of the Bible, reading and contemplating it daily. (See my blog posts about the Bible for some of my thoughts and observations.) With me becoming more serious about the art and craft of writing, I’ve begun to notice relevant writing insights in the Bible. Consider:

  • “The fool multiplies words.” -King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 10:14)
  • “I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account.” -Dr Luke (Luke 1:2-3)
  • “I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.” -Job (Job 42:3)
  • “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” -King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 12:12)
  • “I would rather speak five understandable words to help others than ten thousand words in an unknown language.” -Paul, the apostle (1 Corinthians 14:19)
  • “Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying?” -Paul, the apostle (1 Corinthians 14:9).

Rather or not you are a writer — or a student of the Bible — these are words worth considering.