Friday, December 9, 2011

Are writers the only ones who care about writing rules?

There was a book, before I started writing, that I read a few times. And I loved it. And I loved the sequel. And the third in the series. I thought they were brilliant. Right up there with my favourite books. They could do no wrong.

And then I started writing. They were ruined. I didn't actually notice they were ruined until recently, when the final book in the series was released and I decided to reread the first three as a refresher in the story. After a month of trying I've made it to about page 150 of book one.

The beginning drags, nothing really happens until the 100 page mark. The dialogue is stilted. The writing is weighed down by too many adjectives and adverbs and sentences like 'the river rushed by peacefuly'. The main character is two dimensional and boring. The list goes on.

So why did I love these books so much BW (Before Writing)? Why did all these broken rules not bother me? Could I not recognise bad writing? Was I just not an evolved reader? Or is it because the rules really only matter to those who follow them? The writers? Me AW (After Writing)?

I'm finding it a sad thing to realise a book I believed was one of my favourites no longer holds a place at the top.

What are your thoughts? Are we ruining perfectly good books for ourselves by getting hung up on rules? Or are readers just as aware of stilted, rule-breaking writing as writers?


  1. The stylistic rules (no passive voice, few adverbs, etc.) are meant for writers who have those particular bad habits.  Really, you just need to apply them to your first sentence.  Then to a lesser degree, to the rest of your first paragraph.  
    If you look at a book that you acknowledge has great writing, you'll notice long sentences with interesting modifiers.  A great resource for this more realistic look at style is at

    (though I bought the professor's books cheaply on Amazon).  So be strict about your first sentence, the expand into intriguing sentences with lovely modifiers.  
    And how many "rules" did I break in this post?  

  2. I wonder about this all the time, especially when writing. We hear these rules, and yet most of the published books I've read break some if not all of them. I used to enjoy reading much more before I knew the rules, not that I still don't, but when I realize a rule has been broken, it temporarily throws me out of the story. I think readers just want a good story they can get into. (I'm not talking about grammar rules because that's completely different in a way.)

  3. I'm not sure, it's a great question! I think that perhaps readers are readers, but writers are readers who understand the craft. Like they say, some rules are meant to be broken. Sometimes it may help the book, in other times it just makes it worse. My inner reader and inner writer are probably going to bicker about this for a while now. ;)

  4. I don't believe in  the rules. Not that I don't think they have a place. You need rules when teaching someone to write; then, they're important. And grammar rules are important, because it's through grammar that we communicate ideas. But writing rules? Once you know what you're doing, you don't need them. The story and the characters -should- take precedence over any rules. Period.

  5. THIS. I've been rereading the Harry Potter series to my kids. It's been some years since I read them all, and as you said, it has been eye-opening. There are so many edits and things I notice, but you know what? I don't care, because I love the series so much. I love the characters, and the story, and the fun and the friendships.

  6. This is an excellent question. I read so much, so often before I got serious about writing, and now it's so hard because I notice all of the "rules". Most of the people I know who talk about books are writers, too, so I think sometimes perhaps my views are jaded. There are books I love that broke all the rules and I still adore them, but there are two sides to everything. I don't know.

  7. I struggle with show, don't tell too! But I'm with you - telling has its place.

  8. Good point about critiquing. It's about more than just line editing. The trick, of course, is to strike a balance between expressing dislike of something because of personal sensibilities and suggestions to improve the story, whether the reader "likes" it or not. I think that's sometims where critique runs into trouble. People have a hard time making that distinction.

  9. Great post! And great queston. I think it's a double edged sword for me. Knowing "rules" has made me utterly impatient with some books. A couple of self publishde books pop to mind  - the stories were interesting, but the execution felt unpolished and I didn't enjoy the books as much as I might have before I got into the writing game more seriously. But other times, I look at the way a writer has executed something and I admire it because of the mechanics. In that case, knowing the rules has has actually increased my enjoyment of the book.

  10. Increasing awareness of anything inevitably leads to a change in the way we look at it. And then we adjust and carry on in our 'changed' world.
    For me it comes down to choice. Either I work at becoming better at the craft of writing and put up with the fallout from that (I've just re-read the first few books of my favorite series only to find they are merely an ok read, with quite a few errors); or I don't write and trundle along as before.
    No contest. I want to write. I'm discovering things about writing I never knew! Give up on that? Never! :D
    I'm going to miss that once-wonderful series. There will be other books I love though - I just haven't read them yet :)

  11. "I do think people focus to much on the little things, but then it's much
    harder to tell someone their story is boring than it is to say work on
    the grammar."

    But if someone writes a boring story and you choose to just tell them to work on their grammar, you haven't helped them even slightly. It would have been best to say nothing at all. I find the idea that people would do that more than a little disturbing. What good is critique then? Oh, right. I already knew that. It's no good at all.

  12. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. I think once you get into the rules and craft of writing it will affect your reading, but then if you reread a book you loved as a child you may find it isn't quite the work of genius you thought at twelve. Your tastes and abitlity to discern between good and bad change over time, and they change faster when you study something.

    I do think people focus to much on the little things, but then it's much harder to tell someone their story is boring than it is to say work on the grammar. A lot of the time people are just trying not to offend. Of course in a perfect world crticism would be specific, helpful and unpainful. sadly we don't live in a perfect world.


  13. To answer the question in your blog title, no. Writers didn't make the rules after all. Critics and literature professors did. They LOVE the rules. And then editors and agents adopted the rules to weed out the writing chaff. Only they didn't notice something. They didn't notice that the vast majority of readers couldn't care less about the writing rules. They're totally fine with adverbs and passive voice and everything else. They only, for the most part, care about characters and story.

    Going back and reading Harry Potter after learning the "writing rules" is an eye opening experience. Honestly, I can see why it was rejected so many times. It breaks all the rules. And agents and editors totally care about that. But as we can see, the readers didn't. Thank God for the one smart editor that was willing to take the risk even though HP is a treasure trove of non-said dialogue tags.

    Fortunately, even after learning them, I've always scoffed at the "writing rules". Nothing matters except character and story. So no books have been ruined for me.

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  15. What an interesting post. I've noticed exactly the same thing and it worries me. Just occasionally, I can manage to leave my writer self behind and immerse myself in a book the way I used to, without worrying about the rules. But mostly, I find these days I notice every fault, just as if I was editing my own work. I notice the good stuff too, which can be interesting, but even that gets in the way of the story sometimes, too.

    I think as writers we can get too hung up on rules. The bane of my life is 'show, don't tell'. I happen to think there's nothing wrong with a good bit of tell. It has its place, as do adjectives and adverbs, as long as they are not used lazily.