As almost every writer knows, anywhere you go to discuss writing will always have someone proclaiming their tried and true rules for writing that you MUST follow. Post on any writing forum whether it be for screenwriting or fiction and you’ll find dozens, if not hundreds, of eager “expert” or “professional” writers ready to tell you exactly which rules matter and which are hogwash. Yes, many of these writers have published novels or sold scripts and are professionals in the industry, but does that mean their rules are THE rules to follow?
Let me say that again – Absolutely not. Just because someone has sold a script or published a novel or piece of writing doesn’t mean that they will be able to give you rules to writing that will be guaranteed to work on your story. If you put every writer who ever sold something in a room and asked them to come up with a master list of writing rules it’d be impossible. There’d be factions who think you can never write in present tense and others who think a description of the weather should never start a novel.
There’d be groups who think the epitome of literary or cinematic genius is one specific piece of work, and others who think that same work is a crock of shit. If the people who are actually selling works of writing cannot agree on what makes good writing, and which writing rules are always true, then how on earth can a newbie writer even dream of making it in the industry, let alone be brave enough to even try to put words on the page?
Ultimately, all of this boils down to one single fact about writing: There are hundreds of rules for writing, but one of those rules is that there are no rules. Now before you dip out of this article, because that’s a useless piece of advice in the previous sentence, give me a chance to elaborate.
Writing is a subjective thing. Every story is going to require following a different mix of rules to make it work. That’s why whenever I write a post about the “rules” of writing, I try to explain which situations the rule applies to, and where it might not apply. Also, every writer is going to have different opinions about what makes a good story, and every publisher/studio/audience is going to have a different opinion about what they find marketable and worth buying. If this is true, which based on the evidence presented through comparing a wide range of published and produced pieces of writing it is, then the one and only real rule for writing is that you have to know the “What” and the “Why” of your story.
Essentially, knowing the What’s and Why’s of your story is all about researching the genre or style of writing you want to write by studying the existing works in that genre, and being conscious about your story and your writing choices so that you can answer the following questions on each project you work on:
- What writing “rules” do you have to follow for this particular story? In general, writing rules are not actually rules at all, but rather they’re typical or common guidelines of storytelling that work or don’t work based on previously existing works. So knowing what “rules” you have to follow just means you know which “rules” actually apply to what you’re writing, and which don’t. If you’ve done your due diligence and prep work before writing by studying other works that are similar to what you want to write, then you should have a general idea of what the common rules of that style or genre of story are, and which might apply to your story.
- Why are you following or ignoring these rules? Every time someone tells you a “rule” for writing, it’s important to understand why the rule exists, and where it applies. For your own work, always be able to justify why you’re breaking one set of rules, and why you’re following other rules. You may not have to follow all the “rules” in your writing, but people come up with these various rules for a reason, so understanding why they exist will help you understand why you need to follow certain ones and ignore others in your work.
- What is your setting, characters, plot, etc.? If you don’t know this when you’re writing, then your writing will probably be all over the place. Some people can free-write and discover a lot of these details as they go, but it is almost universally true that having these elements solidly in mind before writing will make your writing stronger.
- Why are you choosing these characters, this setting, that plot, etc.? Ultimately, the core of writing is to make deliberate choices and to be able to justify those choices as being ones that serve the story. Every character, setting, plot device, and elements of your story down to word choice can have a major impact on your writing. The more deliberate and conscious you can be in your choices, the more your writing should come together to tell a successful story.
As you can see, this one and only writing rule really boils down to being conscious about each choice you make in your writing and constantly asking yourself why whenever you are presented with a “rule” that someone thinks is universally true. All of these “rules” people come up with regarding writing are the results of people looking for the magic formula to a guaranteed sale on a piece of work, and they find it by looking for common elements across sold pieces of writing. While it is often true that these elements do exist, there are also just as many pieces of writing out there that break these trends.
Every story is its own thing and has its own identity, and I’m a firm believer that if you focus on serving the story rather than trying to force it to fit pre-existing rules or expectations, then your story will be better for it. I’m not saying you’re guaranteed to sell it, no one can guarantee that, but I am saying if you stay true to your story even if it means breaking the rules, your story will be stronger.
The important thing is to know what “rules” exist and to be able to justify why you broke these preconceived rules that people have and to show that you did so consciously. Ultimately, people aren’t going to focus on whether you broke the “rules” or not with your writing when deciding to buy it, they’re going to focus on whether you’ve put in the work to construct a compelling story that people want to read. If you do that, nothing else matters.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice once a month on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.
In last week’s Weekly Writing Memo I discussed my method for giving feedback. This week, Kaye and I are teaming up to discuss what to do with feedback when you’re on the receiving end. We thought it’d be a great idea to do this one together so we could show two opinions for dealing with critiques.
As writers we tend to be very close to our writing and have trouble seeing it objectively; it’s important to get an outsider’s perspective to see how your writing is being read. That being said, hearing criticism of work you’ve put your heart into can be incredibly hard, but there are methods to dealing with it in a useful way.
What is your method for using a critique?
Robin: When I get a critique I basically have a four step process I go through.
- I read it start to finish. No stopping to vent or obsess, no tears, no anger. I just read. It’s important to take all the info in without letting yourself get too emotional about it. If you do get emotional, it’ll be harder to process whether the info is helpful.
- I walk away and let it sit. The initial response to feedback, especially bad feedback, can be overwhelming. Whatever emotions it brought up, I let them out for a bit and then give myself time to let them fade until I feel I can rationally return to the feedback and really look for the truth in it.
- Read it again, item by item, and consider, try, and analyze. Once I’ve cooled my heels some, I return to the notes and reread them, slowly this time going item-by-item. As I look at each comment, I HAVE to consider each item as being true. Then I look at my work and try to prove the feedback right or wrong. If I can’t prove it wrong in at least several ways, then there may be some partial truth, if not complete truth, to the critique. I do this extra for things I think are 100% wrong to make sure that I’m not just too close to the work.
- Use, refuse, revise, and ask questions. Finally, once I’ve considered everything, I go through and revise with what I want to use, and ignore what I’m “refusing”. I also will go back and ask the critic questions on any feedback I need clarity on once I’ve carefully considered it, that way I know what specifically I need to ask.
Kaye: I’m not nearly as methodical as Robin is. But then again, I’m kind of weird about my writing process. For starters, I ask for and await eagerly any feedback I can get. I look at any negative feedback as a window into things that can be improved, and there’s always room for improvement. Always.
So, my process goes more like this – I read through the whole thing, but I pull it up side-by-side with my manuscript, making changes to the original document as I go. If I come to a comment I don’t understand, don’t think I agree with, or I’m not quite sure what to do to fix it, I highlight the comment in the feedback, so I’ll know to go back to it later.
And I do go back to them, once I’ve done all the quick fixes I can. That’s when I take the time to ponder those I don’t understand or disagree with, and decide what I want to do about them. Some I work out clever ways to fix the problem, and some, I may not do anything about.
What do you do if you disagree with the feedback?
Robin: This one can be hard. If the feedback is something I think is completely wrong and I can’t understand it, then I ask questions. The important thing is to ask those questions in the least defensive, and least confrontational way possible. The person did you a favor giving you feedback, so don’t attack, ask for clarity.
For example, I’d ask: “Can you explain more about this specific comment and give me some examples of where you see that?” That way I can maybe get a better idea of what the critic is thinking, and where I need to be looking.
If the feedback is something I think will never be right, and I’m positive that I’ve considered it as many ways I can, then I ignore it. There really isn’t much else you can do. If you disagree, and you can’t see things from their perspective, then ultimately it’s your writing and you get to decide what feedback you use or don’t.
Kaye: I welcome feedback, but that doesn’t mean I agree with every comment I get. As writers, we often become attached to our creations, and sometimes it’s difficult to believe that others find flaw with our masterpieces. I’m no different. I pour my heart and soul into my writing. It’s not easy to separate myself from my work, but I think that’s what we have to do. Always remember that all criticism is about the writing and not the writer. We can’t take it personal, even though it may feel like our creations are a part of ourselves.
What do you use from the feedback?
Robin: I use feedback as a sounding board. I’m not looking for critiques to tell me HOW to fix it, I’m just looking for them to point me at what may or may not be wrong. In general, everyone who reads your work will probably have a different idea of how to fix something anyway, and many of the suggestions won’t be right for YOUR story because they’re suggestion how THEY would fix it. So I focus in on where the critique is pointing, or how they are interpreting things, and then I figure out how I would fix it in my own way.
For example, if someone says “This passage feels slow. I think it’s because this character is boring. I’d cut them.”
I would interpret that advice as meaning “something is wrong with this scene, it feels uninteresting.” Then I’d look at the scene and try to figure out where it goes wrong. Is the character really boring, or just inactive? Is the scene even necessary to the plot, or just filler? I look at the larger idea of the feedback, rather than the specifics. Sometimes I come to the same conclusion as the critique, and sometimes not.
Kaye: I believe there’s a grain of truth to everything. The trick is to pick it out. I always try to find those little granules when I disagree, because I’ve learned that most of the time, it’s there, and if I can find it and make appropriate changes, my story will be better for it. I choose my alpha readers carefully, and I’ve learned that their comments are usually pretty spot on.
Like Robin, I don’t always use their suggested fixes, but their comments let me know where I should be looking for something that’s off and then, I can determine for myself what it is that’s wrong and how I want to fix it. But again, my alpha readers often come up with some really good suggestions, and I use them whenever I can. Seldom do I totally discard a suggestion unless it’s obviously something the reader just doesn’t get. But if my reader isn’t getting it, then that tells me I’m doing something wrong or they would get it. Chances are, if my alpha reader doesn’t get it, my target audience won’t get it either.
What if you don’t know how to fix it?
Robin: A lot of times if someone gives me feedback that I don’t know how to fix, it’s because I don’t know what the real problem is. So, of course, I ask questions until I have a better understanding. Then I try to come up with a few possible solutions.
I will also sometimes talk with the critic about the changes I’m debating to get their perspective on whether it’ll fix things, or I’ll try the fix and then give it to someone else and see if I get the same critique. It’s really just a matter of trial and error if you can’t figure out a specific solution. After that, all you can do is take some time away from it and revise other things and hope when you come back with fresh eyes you’ll figure it out.
Kaye: It’s kind of funny, but I’ve learned a lot about fixing my fiction from my screenwriting classes. One thing I’ve learned is that if you can’t find a way to fix a problem, sometimes you have to look to see a change somewhere else in the writing that will fix the problem scene and make it all work. I guess you have to think outside the box, or beyond the page.
After looking at a problem from every angle, if I still can’t find a way to fix it, then I consult with the reader that pointed out the issue to see if they also have suggestions on how it might be fixed. If that doesn’t work, I can always throw it out to the members of my writers group and we can brainstorm it. Helpful suggestions seldom fail to materialize from these sessions.
Kaye: To me, critiques are a writing tool, enlisting another set of eyes to see what I can’t because I’m too close to the work. When utilizing this tool, I try and take advantage of each and every comment that I can. After all, if I didn’t think they were intelligent and talented, I wouldn’t ask them to be my alpha readers. But the important thing to remember is not to take negative feedback personal, its about the writing, and being open to feedback is what makes your writing better.
Robin: Overall, the important thing for me when looking at critiques is to consider each element carefully and thoroughly. The whole point is to get an outsider’s perspective, so if I don’t consider it seriously, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. If I can fix what they see, I do, and if I can’t or think they’re wrong, I don’t. That being said, if multiple people say the same thing is wrong, then it’s most likely wrong and you need to do something about it, whether you like it or not.
Ultimately, remember the point of a critique is to tell you how your writing is being read, and whether the critic is wrong or right, someone somewhere will probably agree with them. So fix what you can, let go what you can’t, and do your best to be critical of your work no matter how much you love it.