Rules for fiction writing

I’m always wary when someone starts talking about the rules of writing, because I strongly believe that there are situations in which it’s better to throw all rules out the window. But I also believe that we need to start from some sort of base, that we need to understand these rules (or, let’s call them guidelines) before we start breaking them. Maybe it’s the grammarian in me, but I’ve never felt that ignorance is a good excuse to do whatever you want (such as demonstrated by the kill the apostrophe people).

So I was interested when I came across this link over the weekend. It’s a compilation of fiction rules as defined by a wide variety of writers, including Atwood, Franzen, and Gaiman, and it’s amazing how no two lists look even remotely alike. Some flat out contradict each other, such as on how widely you should read, or if you should use a thesaurus.

I found myself having strong reactions to some pieces of advice, and being turned off to some writers (Moorcock, I’m looking at you). And I wonder, looking at some lists, how the advice translates to the work, and what I think my list would look like.

So here goes, off the top of my head:

1.   Fewer words are usually better; flowery prose distracts the reader.
2.   Always read your dialogue out loud; what looks good on the page might not sound realistic or good to the ear.
3.   Read widely, including outside of your genre and books that you don’t find that good; bad books teach you what not to do with your own writing.
4.   Feel free to experiment.
5.   Save all your unfinished work and old drafts; you never know when something might come in handy. Also, it’s fun to see where you’ve come from.

So it’s not a full ten, but I’m not a full published writer yet, so I’m letting myself off the hook. What does your list look like?


  • tanya debuff says:

    I’ve learned two rules since starting grad school that I really like and will continue to employ:
    1. Care about your sentences.
    2. Writing is about stealing.

    Caring about your sentences seems obvious enough, but then why don’t more people do it? Prose writers need to be as diligent as poets in this. And when I say writing is about stealing, of course I’m not talking plagiarism, but stealing techniques (I steal words too).

  • Marcus says:

    That Kill the Apostrophe website seems quite silly. Isn’t it equivalent to saying we should write phonetically? The same arguments that site puts forth against the apostrophe can apply to spelling. I’d like to see them defend that.

    Also, isn’t there an estate of some author (I feel like it’s one of the Modernists) that offers a substantial sum to anyone who can create a phonetically consistent version of English? Or something?

    • Kathryn says:

      I can never decide if I think that site is a joke or not.

      I’ve never heard about that author estate thing, but I think I’d be curious to see what people try, from a linguistic curiosity standpoint, that is.

  • Fiction says:

    I am not a good fiction admirer, but I like it.

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