Baffling Dictums: On the Rules of Writing

March 6, 2014 | 12 4 min read


Ask any writer about the rules he’s heard throughout the years, and he will be able to recite a litany as deeply embedded as the Lord’s Prayer.  Show, don’t tell.  Write what you know.  The first sentence is key.  The last sentence is key.  All writing is rewriting.  No adverbs.  No one aside from you finds your dreams interesting.  You should never write in the second person.   

Then there are the more baffling dictums that many of us have been treated to, equal parts arbitrary and asinine.  “We don’t do dead-father stuff,” an editor once admonished me in response to a submission.  Another time, during graduate school, a visiting novelist said, “You won’t write anything of worth until you’re at least 30.”  She announced this to a group of us, all in our 20s, while we were gathered near the table where her books were for sale after her reading.  (It’s hard to understand where that stereotype that writers aren’t the best pitchmen for their own work comes from.)  We hardly needed additional excuses to drink, but we always had room for more so we just appended that to the list when we repaired to the local dive, visiting, anti-youth author uninvited.

It’s surprising how often these bromides are dispensed, in essentially unchanged language.  It makes me long to be a doctor, because at least the one physicians hear all the time makes sense and resonates like a commandment: Do no harm.

There was a story, perhaps apocryphal, that I remember hearing in high school.  The Irish poet Seamus Heaney had come to give a reading and lecture a few years before I was there.  Afterward, he took questions, and one student asked where he found his inspiration.  The English teachers leaned forward, snapped out of their daydreaming and now thoughtfully thumbing their chins.  “It could just be the view out the window, maybe a memory resurfacing,” Mr. Heaney said.  “Or it could be the hum of the word processor.”  This was when computers were beginning to muscle their way into our everyday lives, and many people, especially those like Mr. Heaney, referred to them as “word processors.”  Our teachers, progressive in so many ways, were leery of computers and urged us to use caution with them — they thought the machines got in the way of good writing — and it probably never occurred to them that an esteemed poet would go near such devices.

Much as I enjoyed their comeuppance then (if indeed it happened), I have to confess my own fondness for pen and paper.  I have no routines for writing save this: I compose first drafts of virtually everything I write on yellow legal pads, college rule, bought in 12-packs from Staples.  The moment when I razor into that shrink wrap is completely horrible: all those pages, blank and taunting.  The moment when I have to buy more is pure bliss — or at least what passes for bliss in a novelist’s life.  (It’s all relative, this happiness stuff, and writers are known for many things but not always for abundant good cheer.)

I don’t get caught up in any of the available metaphors that come with my choice of tablet.  I don’t think I’m making a contract with readers; I’m not sketching out arguments (it’s the opposite, really: good novels arrive with a hush and leave with the shiver of recognition and epiphany); no one’s on trial, especially not the characters I’m desperate to avoid judging.

I will, however, cop to liking the warm, light color, the left margin set off by the twin vertical red lines, that narrow column where a lot of revision blackens the canary hue.  And most of all I like flipping the page when I reach the bottom right corner.  Writing is so abstract, and anything that makes it more tangible seems important.  I’ve always been envious of my artist friends, who get to splatter their studios with paint.  Drips stain the floors and walls, canvas and stretchers huddle in the corners.  There, you can see progress, figures take form and recede.  I suppose I could finger-paint my next book, but, well, I’m not 3 years old anymore and I don’t think the legal paper is the right weight to hold the pigment.

The most indelible writing exercise I was ever taught was to copy, either by typing or by hand, a favorite piece of prose.  This was in college, in a workshop memorable to me for two reasons: how I had managed to weasel in; and the presence of a classmate, an actress with eyes the color of tourmaline and an equally rare name, both of which I surmised to be the results of pharmaceuticals.  Clearly she had signed on to this whole “show, don’t tell” thing long before the rest of us.

I don’t recall the professor’s explanation about the assignment, yet I know now that it must have been so we could hear the music in the sentences, the sound and the rhythm, the difference a comma makes, the impact of a short word versus a longer one.  She wanted us to appreciate the architecture and choreography of a paragraph.  I chose the final passage of “The Dead” by James Joyce, and it remains, to my ear, one of the most heartbreaking and stunning paragraphs in all of literature.

That professor may have also spouted some rules, though in the version of history I cling to she did not.  I was too busy being grateful for the simple tool that made me listen to every note of that startling paragraph, and I was also distracted by trying to figure out whether those were colored contacts or not.  No matter.  I was party to more than enough rules in the ensuing years.  They were not all poison, either.  “Get back on the horse,” issued affectionately from the mouth of an agent, is still my favorite.

As for the only one I really believe in, in addition to the rodeo-borne gem, it is this: Try to break them, every single one.  In the most mistrustful antiques stores the warnings read, “If you break it, you pay for it.”  Schoolmarm tone aside, the same is more or less true when it comes to writing.  But what you will lose in metaphorical dollars and cents — alienating readers, inducing the ire of editors and fellow students, listening to failing sentences — you will more than gain in what you are after, what we are all after, on the page and everywhere else: figuring out just which risks to take.

Image Credit: Flickr/rore

's first novel, The Measures Between Us, was published last year by Bloomsbury. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times and elsewhere.


  1. ‘We don’t do dead father stuff,’ said the editor.
    ‘So I should scrap ‘Hamlet’?’ asked young Shakespeare.

  2. “You should never write in the second person.”

    How does anyone ever say this with a straight face?

  3. Ethan, I also remember Joyce’s ending to “The Dead” and a pair of beautiful eyes, in close proximity, from college.

    I agree completely about the passage. I return to it occasionally, to see if it still holds the same haunting quality, and it always does. I’ve never tried writing it out for myself though. I think I will now.

    As for the eyes, they were blue, and when I told her they were beautiful, she told me they were contacts.

    The flood of advice to writers is overwhelming! Thanks.

  4. To follow the rules shows respect for language. To thoughtfully break the rules shows respect for knowledge.

    But not knowing the rules shows no respect.

  5. The Writer’s Prayer

    Our muse who art in ether
    Hallow it be thy name
    Thy inspiration come
    Thy will be done

    On print
    As it is in dream

    Give us this day our daily quota
    And forgive us our boozing, drug use, and womanizing
    As we forgive those who overcharge

    And lead us not into temptation
    But deliver us from Carver, Hempel, Robinson, and Franzen

    For thine is the pipe dream
    The illusion and self-delusion
    For ever and ever. Amen.

  6. Nicely written piece.

    Just wanted to say: tourmaline can be many colours. Not a serious point, just for educational purposes!

  7. @timble

    I agree.

    The second person is extremely difficult to pull off. If someone can make you keep reading using second person, it means they are damn good.

  8. I think it was Sandra Cisneros who said that while at the University of Iowa, after each workshop she’d go home and try to break every rule the instructor gave them. While it helps to know the rules (or “guidelines” as I think of them), it’s better to pick these up naturally on one’s own by experimenting and reading good books. There are authors who can’t write a traditional narrative. They might try (and fail at) it, but as students they shouldn’t be *expected* to do it—like you have to graduate from realistic portraiture before diving into abstract expressionism. For some, quirkiness, done right, creates expression.

  9. I’m trying to remember any examples I’ve read of fiction written in the second person. Can’t come up with anything.

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