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There are a lot of axioms that get tossed around in creative writing courses, books on writing, and of course, the internet. Often, these little gems are explained to new writers as though they were fact, to be taken for granted.

Just as often, experienced writers will respond by saying "there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing", or "rules are made to be broken".

So, the purpose of this question is to provide a place where we can list these axioms or "rules" of writing, and also weigh in on whether they are really self-evident truths or utter garbage (or maybe even something in-between).

Please limit each answer to a single "rule" and express your thoughts on it in the answer itself, or in a comment.

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this is the kind of info I'm looking for. +1 for a question that resulted in very useful answers –  slashmais Dec 13 '10 at 9:05
    
As William de Worde says in "The Truth": "News all depends. But you'll know it when you see it." The most important skill is to, well, to know it when you see (or rather write) it. To know when it's right to break the "rule"; and when it isn't. And it's actually not even important to know the rules, it's just important to know what works (for the story in question, not in general) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 13 '10 at 14:42
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Here's an article in The Guardian where they asked a bunch of writers to list their own sets of rules a la Elmore Leonard. –  Ethan Jan 4 '11 at 3:41
    
@Ethan: I really like that article. I have a sudden urge to snip up that list into individual rules, and have them pop up at random while I'm writing (or, rather, when I should be writing). Clever + Helpful == Awesome. –  Standback Mar 14 '11 at 10:37

20 Answers 20

Show, Don't Tell

This may very well be the most popular "rule" of writing. It refers to the idea that it's better to "show" an event as a scene, rather than simply "telling" the reader what happened.

In my opinion, this is mostly sound advice:

  • Don't tell us the 5000-year history of your fantasy setting in the prologue. Show it to us throughout the story.
  • Don't tell us the protagonist's girlfriend is beautiful. Show us her flowing black hair, her lips perpetually on the verge of smiling, her brown eyes with those eerie golden flecks.
  • Don't tell us the thief was nervous. Show us how he has to close his eyes and breathe, just to stop his hands from shaking.

On the other hand, sometimes there is information that the reader needs to know to understand the story, but forcing that information into a scene would divert the plot or bore the reader to tears.

  • Don't show us the Senators explaining to each other how the seat of US government is Washington D.C. They have no reason to tell each other what they already know. Instead, just tell us.
  • Don't show the young wizard taking a tour of the magical staff factory, when he has no business being there. Just tell us that all magical staves are carved from the wood of the whump-whump tree.

More discussion can be found here.

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Note however that many very popular authors break this 'rule' left right and center. So it is more of a guideline than a rigid rule. –  user3010 Dec 28 '11 at 17:48
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I agree, this answer (Show, Don't Tell) should be at the top. But I think it misses the main point of what this really means. I don't want to criticize this entry too harshly, because I too was very much confused about what this saying (Show, Don't Tell) really means. -> When I'm watching a movie, or reading a book, or listening to someone, I don't ever like to be TOLD how to FEEL about something. It's like seeing an infomercial. It immediately makes me tune out and push it away. Don't TELL me how to feel, SHOW me what's going on, SHOW me how a character is reacting, SHOW me her heart racing. –  dvanaria Jan 7 '12 at 10:14
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Let me make up my own mind about how I feel about what's going on. Let me form my own opinions. Just report what happens (SHOW it to me). Don't tell me how to feel (don't TELL). –  dvanaria Jan 7 '12 at 10:17
    
The aesthetic rule underlying “show, don’t tell” is that character and emotion are most effectively revealed by action. (If your best friend tells you that her new boyfriend is a great humanitarian, and then you see him browbeating the waitress in a restaurant, which will make a bigger impression on you?) But for events that are secondary to the main plot line (including, I would say, that 5000-year fantasy history) or when you need to convey information that doesn’t have to develop or reveal character, the decision to show vs. tell should be made on the grounds of pacing. –  Seth Gordon Nov 15 '13 at 13:29

Give yourself permission to suck.

That's not to say just write bad stuff, but don't stress about the quality of your writing when you are writing it. Stressing about the quality of the work can keep you from writing and even cause writer's block. You have to accept that what you write won't be perfect at first, but you can fix it when you do your edits and rewrites.

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this, for me as a novice, seems like very good advice indeed –  slashmais Dec 13 '10 at 9:02
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The NaNoWriMo Creed! This is a great rule, so long as you remember the last part: editing later. –  sjohnston Dec 13 '10 at 15:48
    
Agreed, don't shy away from the "shitty first draft". –  user355 Dec 14 '10 at 14:11
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@sjohnston: Or write something else later. Some stories are simply too flawed to be worth editing. As long as the writer learns something from them, they're not a waste. –  David Thornley Dec 25 '10 at 15:45
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As I always say The secret to great ideas is lots of ideas, and a big trashcan. –  hildred Nov 25 '13 at 6:26

Stay off the Internet when you're writing.

It's no timeworn tidbit, but I'll venture it's axiomatic.

A timely example:

Ten minutes ago I was primed to cap off a chapter. Now here I am, chapter-capless, browsing and clicking and typing and web-clipping, pasting notes that will make great endings or even greater stored kilobytes I'll never again ask my CPU to recall. All because I took a moment's peek into the web to see if Liu Xiaobo is trending this morning. Same goes for You, about to comment on what I posted: If this is your dedicated writing time, go away. Get offline. Online's wonderful and time-pilfering diversions will still be here when we return during less valuable hours-- such as while we set about our day jobs.

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For some of us addicts, it's just "Stay off Stack Exchange when you're writing". –  sjohnston Dec 10 '10 at 15:59
    
Yeah, that might do the trick. –  Dawn Dec 10 '10 at 17:04
    
too true - on this topic: a tool that has become my ONLY web-page storage tool for offline use and as general repository is zotero.org - comes as plug-in for firefox –  slashmais Dec 13 '10 at 9:09
    
When a coffee shop asks you "Would you like a code for the free WiFi?", don't tempt it. –  Grant Holliday Feb 7 '11 at 4:15
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I think it's quite helpful to listen to songs that fit the atmosphere of your novel (in Grooveshark) or to check some pictures of something you are describing (Google Images). –  Alexandro Chen Apr 19 '11 at 14:38

Cut Adjectives and Adverbs

This "rule" is often stated more forcefully as "remove all adjectives and adverbs," but, like most of these rules, I don't think it should be blindly followed. Sometimes, an adjective or an adverb is the best way to get across exactly what you're trying to say.

The main time to avoid using them is when a stronger noun or verb would get the same point across. This is really just a specific application of a broader rule: never use two words when one will suffice. Some examples:

  • Replace "The huge man loomed over him" with "The giant loomed over him."
  • Replace "John ran quickly" with "John sprinted."

Note, however, that in most of these cases the two-word combination will have slightly different connotations than the single-word replacement. These differences are worth thinking about. Just ask yourself if what you're trying to say is worth that extra word. Think especially hard if you're using more than one adjective or adverb, as these can really stand out to readers as being overly verbose.

So, adjectives and adverbs shouldn't be cut simply on principle, but a good rule of thumb is to look at each one and double check that it's really worth having.

More discussion here.

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You should link to Twain's original rule, like here: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/439/… –  John Smithers Dec 13 '10 at 10:10
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I would say that a large number of adjectives and adverbs are a "smell" that often indicates weak nouns and verbs. Strengthen these and the "need" for the crutches magically goes away. –  kindall Dec 22 '10 at 19:01
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This ties in with "show, don't tell". It's far too easy to use adjectives to avoid the sorts of details that can bring a scene to life. sjohnston's second two "don't"s refer to using adjectives ("beautiful" and "nervous") to substitute for concrete details the reader can use to see what's happening. –  David Thornley Dec 25 '10 at 15:45

Write, Don't Edit!

The most important rule of all. Everything else is secondary. Even "Show, don't tell".

It is the editor in your head you have to fight. He is nagging you: "You can't do that! What shit have you written here? Are you serious? You will never be a good writer, if you keep doing scribbling this nonsense!"

Well, you can do, you are serious and you scribble all the "nonsense" you like. You have to! Every idea that flashes through your head, write it down. Kick out your editor, kick him hard. The truth is, that more than 90% is shit, what you are writing. But you will never write down the 10% which are really brilliant, if you listen to your editor.

Have you ever started to write a letter or a paragraph of your book, found a spelling error, a grammar error and stopped writing? Have corrected the error, thought about how you can formulate that better? And after you let your editor interrupt yourself, have you tried to finish your paragraph and did not know, what the hell you wanted to write? It was all gone. You were sitting there for twenty more minutes to make up some shit, when you knew what you wanted to write, when you started. But you listened to the bastard in your head, the editor, and now it's all gone. Silence him! Write, don't edit. You have plenty of time editing, when everything is written down.

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One of the best bits I ever wrote (sadly, lost, and I'm not sure I can (ever) recreate it) was, well, just written down as fast as I could. It just "flowed". –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 13 '10 at 14:50
    
What a pity, @jae. But that's exactly how it works. If you can silence the editor, you will get into this flow more frequently. –  John Smithers Dec 13 '10 at 18:43

You have to read, and read all the time.

There are no iron laws of writing. I'm sure that if I told you that it was impossible to do good writing without reading much, someone could find a handful of examples of great writers who barely read.

But for the rest of us normal human beings, writing isn't something that happens in a vacuum. To understand writing you have to see how it's been done before. Even the really bad stuff will teach you something.

So read, and don't just read one thing. Read literature, read genre, read nonfiction, read comic books; read a lot and read a lot of different things.

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I can't upvote this enough. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jun 26 '12 at 22:00
    
I sometimes recommend to beginning writers to focus on books they've read and disliked -- and try to figure out exactly what it was that they hated about them. –  lea Jul 13 at 6:25

Writing is Rewriting

You've completed your first draft. Congratulations! Next step is to send it to an agent or a publisher, right?

Not quite yet. Especially if you are relatively new to the writing game, you will spend a lot more time revising your manuscript than you did writing the first draft. More than you think it needs now. More than you think anyone in history has ever spent. Not to sound discouraging, but you will likely need to revise it multiple times before it is saleable, and you will probably need to take breaks in between. (These can be spent working on other projects.)

With experience, you will need fewer rewrites, and less input from others on what needs to be changed to make your manuscript acceptable to a publisher. Even so, the number of writers who can sell their first drafts (or even their early drafts) is minuscule. The most successful writers still make glaring continuity errors, suffer from style inconsistencies from one part of the novel to another, have characters with unbelievable motivations, and so on, and publishers will insist that these be corrected. Some seasoned pros even have trouble with basics like grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

My sister, who has published a few romance novels, has been heard to say, upon finishing the first draft of one of her novels, "now the real work begins."

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Don’t go into great detail describing places and things

This is one of Elmore Leonard's "Ten Rules." I selected it from the list almost at random -- all ten are worth heeding. I love it because it's so counterintuitive -- you want to add color and detail to your story, right? No, you don't. You want to add story to your story, and just enough descriptive detail to bring it to life, which is generally a lot less than you would think. One brilliantly-chosen detail is worth half a page of description, no matter how beautifully it was written.

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This is a hard one to strike the right balance on. I write speculative fiction, where it is especially challenging to minimize this sort of description, as you're often describing things that don't have obvious real-world analogues. –  sjohnston Dec 14 '10 at 0:49
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I think Tolkien would be down voting this if he were still with us. –  Nick Bedford Dec 14 '10 at 2:46
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Yes, Tolkien did favor extremely long descriptive and expository passages. And of course that's a perfectly legitimate approach, especially with fantasy literature. But unless you're really brilliant at it, I think you're better off following the Elmore Leonard model. And even Tolkien is a pretty tough slog to get through in some places. –  Ethan Dec 16 '10 at 2:15
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One example of a "telling detail" that has always stuck with me (it's probably from one of the Writer's Digest how-to books) is describing a shabby motel room by describing the Texas-shaped water stain under the window-mounted air conditioner. –  kindall Dec 22 '10 at 19:02
    
If you want to tell stories like Elmore Leonard, then yes, it's a good rule. But if you write something else... it may not fit. Oh, and the link appears to be dead. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jun 26 '12 at 21:40

Use correct grammar and punctuation (and of course, spelling)

Style doesn't mean squat if your manuscript doesn't flow due to incorrect spelling, grammar and punctuation. There's a reason why the "rules" are there be followed. They work.

I thought of this is after making my own contribution to this question.

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This is true 99.99% of the time (and that's why it's a good rule). However, some of my favorite books (City of Saints and Madmen, House of Leaves, Fight Club) thoroughly abuse grammar and punctuation. It should be noted, it can be done, even (rarely!) by first-time novelists. However, if you think your writerly voice requires you to mangle language, you better be damn sure of yourself. And even if you mangle language amazingly well, you're still going to take a lot of flak for it. –  sjohnston Dec 14 '10 at 3:34
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Well, I don't have any problem with it if it's done tastefully and doesn't intrude on the reading experience. Tolkien is probably a good example of how someone may "break the rules", but there are people who want to do it for the sake of "trying to be unique" and failing. –  Nick Bedford Dec 14 '10 at 3:57
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Also, you need to be consistent in mangling your English so that the reader can eventually catch on to your rules. (See "A Clockwork Orange.") –  kindall Dec 22 '10 at 19:17

I like Elmore Leonard's 10 rules:

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

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Never say "never" is what I say. Empathically. (But #4 I like) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jun 26 '12 at 21:42
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#3 is highly debatable, I've seen a lot of pros and cons on the subject. #5 is a bit ridiculous, putting a number on a punctuation mark. You use it when you need to use it, no more and no less. Same goes for ellipses, semicolons, dashes and I don't know what else... If you have too many of either, you're doing it wrong. I like #8,9,10 though :) –  Tannalein Nov 30 '12 at 13:25
    
I agree with @Tannalein; I fail to see why #3 should be included, there are lots of tidy verbs that can be used instead of said that carry a lot more descriptive weight: he sighed, he spat, he grunted, he screamed, he whispered, he asked, he commanded, he wailed. In fact, I would say the rule should be always AVOID the word said. And remember that you don't need to have a he said style statement after every line of dialogue. Also, just no to #2, prologues give the reader a taste of the action and story before they begin. It's called a hook, and it is VERY useful. –  CLockeWork May 30 '13 at 8:21

Know the end before you begin.

Everything has to lead up to the end. The climax is the culmination of everything in the story. By knowing the end, you can include powerful foreshadowing and ensure that you don't go off on useless tangents.

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Some writers who prefer to plan less may not know the ending when they write the first draft. It is still possible to go back on subsequent drafts, when the ending is known, to work on foreshadowing and cleanup of tangents. While this can require a lot more drafting, some writers have trouble doing it any other way. –  sjohnston Dec 16 '10 at 23:24
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A good modification to this would be: once you know the ending, fix up the beginning to match. –  Standback Mar 7 '11 at 9:24
    
I found out I never know the end before I have the first chapter written. Paint the world and characters, making them original and interesting, then let the story of their life play out in your head. All the foreshadowing is already there, you just didn't know it's foreshadowing while writing it. (If you can do this without writing, good for you...) –  SF. Nov 28 '12 at 16:31
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For the purposes of shorts I tend to start with just a name of a character or a title. I won't know the ending until the story has started to grow out from that point, and that only happens once I start writing. However, for a novel I would say it's important to have an ending in mind because throughout the whole thing the story should be moving towards the ending if it is to be solid rather than directionless. –  CLockeWork May 30 '13 at 8:16

Write What You Know

This is one of those rules that I think is most often misinterpreted. Many aspiring writers and advisors take it to mean 'write only about your personal life experiences and not using your imagination at all'.

Realistically though a writer has to move beyond the strictly autobiographical and create fiction with their imagination. So how to combine the two?

A better understanding is to realise that what you know is emotions, relationships, motivations, describing people and places, tragedy, comedy, and all the many other things that make up the basics of a novel: characters, plot, humour, and drama.

In short, write about what you know: life

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You must learn to walk before you can run


The most important rule is, first to learn to write according to the rules. When you master that, you can break them to get better results. But, like in anything where mastering a topic is hard, breaking the rules without understanding them will get really ugly. For true beauty, following the rules however does not suffice.

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I prefer the quote from Iron Man (the movie): Sometimes you have to run, before you can walk. Case in point: others always told me that in order to write your own songs, you first have to cover other people's songs. For... how long? They didn't say. And they were wrong. For me, at least. –  Jürgen A. Erhard Jun 26 '12 at 22:01

How to Write Good

The first set of rules was written by Frank L. Visco and originally published in the June 1986 issue of Writers' digest. The second set of rules is derived from William Safire's Rules for Writers.

  1. Avoid alliteration. Always.
  2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
  3. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They're old hat.)
  4. Employ the vernacular.
  5. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
  6. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
  7. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
  8. Contractions aren't necessary.
  9. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
  10. One should never generalize.
  11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."
  12. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
  13. Don't be redundant; don't more use words than necessary; it's highly superfluous.
  14. Profanity sucks.
  15. Be more or less specific.
  16. Understatement is always best.
  17. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
  18. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
  19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
  20. The passive voice is to be avoided.
  21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
  22. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
  23. Who needs rhetorical questions?
  24. While a transcendent vocabulary is laudable, one must nevertheless keep incessant surveillance against such loquacious, effusive, voluble verbosity that the calculated objective of communication becomes ensconced in obscurity.
  25. In a sentence, the nouns has to match the verbs.
  26. Don't use no double negatives.
  27. In writing, few things are, so to speak, more infuriating, than, say, commas, at least when there are too many of them, or when they should be, say, semicolons.
  28. Proofread your work, so you don't leave some out or forget to finish
  29. Run-on sentences are really bad because the reader saturates and what you really should be doing is using commas and semicolons and even periods to break the sentence up into more digestible chunks.
  30. To have been using excessively complex verb constructions, is to have been bopping the literary baloney.
  31. A friend I spoken with recently told me he been forgetting his helper verbs.
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Write in the Active Voice

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned active vs. passive voice (for a good discussion, see this Q&A. Like many "rules," there are various reasons to decide otherwise, but in general the active voice is stronger than the passive.

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"Said" is All You Need to Say

My favorite writing teacher, way back in the day, told me--rightly--that it is very rarely necessary to use more than the word "said" when writing dialogue, particularly using adverbs.

Almost every time I find myself wanting to use constructions like, "He said excitedly," or the like, I realize I'm better off just saying "said." Part of the reason this happens so much is that, as writers, we are acutely aware of each word. But readers don't notice the repetition of the verb and the adverb rarely conveys enough to be meaningful anyway.

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Break The Rules

Most of the rules here already note that exceptions should always be made, and You must learn to walk before you can run is generally good advice.

However, these rules apply mostly to the act of writing itself. There are another set of rules in writing, those of genre. Some of the best creative writing hinges on breaking moulds. An excellent example is William Gibson's Neuromancer. Gibson is quoted in an interview as saying:

I had a sense of what the expectations of the SF industry were in terms of product, but I hated that product and felt such a genuine sense of disgust that I consciously decided to reverse expectations, not give publishers or readers what they wanted.

This example is particularly nice because it also breaks the walk-before-running rule: Neuromancer was Gibson's first attempt at a novel.

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I would say,

  • First write whatever is in your mind.
  • Organize it.
  • Read it as a reader and see whats lacking and what would the reader be thinking while reading the article. Following these rules would help you make your point clearer to the readers.

Also, one good rule I know about life and writing is,

Always make improvements. When you come across something better, improve it. Make corrections in the previous articles and keep doing it. It would help you learn.

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I was told "Normally I tell people to never use the word conclusion in the conclusion, but leave it." If you hear something similar, you did it right.

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