Sam Holstein

Why Following the Rules Will Make You a Fantastic Writer

Why Following the Rules Will Make You a Fantastic Writer

So many people think of writing as a free-form enterprise. We treat writing as a creative departure from the logical, rule-abiding world, one where association, do-what-you-want excitement, and creativity rule.

But there are rules, actually. Lots of rules.

You don’t have to follow these rules. There’s no writing police waiting around the corner to book you for following the rules. (Well, mostly). But not following the rules does come with a cost. If you don’t follow the rules, your work won’t be good, and people won’t enjoy reading your work.

Oh, but the greats break the rules, you say. Great writers from days gone by defined new genres by breaking the rules.

It’s true that great writers do break the rules sometimes. But let’s use a little mathematical thinking. How many rules do great writers break compared to bad writers? And how many rules do they follow?

We don’t need a meta-analysis to answer this question. Great writers break only a handful of rules, and only in a consistently applicable way. It’s as if their rule-breaking becomes its own special rule.

Bad writers break all kinds of rules, all the time. There’s no consistency or theme. They break grammar rules, syntax rules, metaphor use rules, plot development rules, and content organization rules. As a result, their work looks like a jumbled mess.

The greatest writers among us are almost all rule-breakers. Wallace uses run-on sentences so long they are paragraphs unto themselves. Coehlo can’t bring himself to write a sentence beyond the comprehension of a five-year-old.

Great writers don’t break just any rules, though. Great writers break only a few of the many rules and strategically pick which rules to break in service of a greater artistic image. You have to know the rules before you can break the rules.

Poor writers, on the other hand, break most of the rules without realizing there are rules at all. As someone who wants to write, your job is to learn these rules and choose which ones to break for your purposes.

Before trying to become a great writer by breaking the rules, spend a few years simply mastering the rules first.

The Rules Are Hard to Learn, but They’re Worth Learning

Admittedly, the rules for writing are inscrutable. No one person can say with authority “this is writing” or “ that is writing.” People have claimed as writing everything from the unwieldy Ulysses to scribbling on a bathroom stall. But the complexity of the rules does not mean there are no rules.

Without rules, writing would make no sense. Adding a few well-placed words to a barebones paragraph makes it a delight to read. Add too many words, though, or place them poorly, and a paragraph can quickly become gibberish.

The rules of writing are challenging enough to elude even experienced writers at times. Great writers thrive on creativity, but they also thrive on logic. Great writers can see words and sentences as pieces of a logical puzzle and figure out where everything logically needs to go.

Style Comes Naturally With Time

Some writers out there consciously try to cultivate a particular style. I’m not sure this is something worth doing. It is unlikely Wallace ever said to himself “I will now write winding run-on sentences to cultivate my style.” Wallace writes in such tremendously long sentences because he thinks in such tremendously long sentences. I also doubt Coehlo consciously decided “I will write using only a child’s vocabulary to create a fable-like atmosphere.” More likely, he simply felt unconsciously that’s the way the story needed told.

Think back to school. You were probably given an assignment at some point to “interpret” an “author’s style.” You likely complained about this assignment, knowing instinctively that the author probably didn’t do any conscious work to create that “style.”

It is my suspicion that the more a writer worries about their “style,” the more they drive a good natural style away. I think style is like personality; an emergent property of the writing.

Instead of working on your style, you should work on your writing skill. Style will come naturally.

In Conclusion

Don’t think of writing as a freeform, lawless, follow-your-heart enterprise. Think of writing like math. Learn the formulas of writing and learn how they fit with each other. Define what you want your article to communicate, then use the rules of the writing trade to deliver. You will find your style emerges along the way.