The Golden Rules of Writing and Why They Suck
I know, I know. Edgy title. I’m so millennial right? But I’m being serious about this topic because I’m serious about my writing and nothing incites internal rage more than bad advice.
A lot of this bad advice comes from one of two places (sometimes both):
The second reason is unforgivable and it usually comes from people who don’t do any serious writing on a regular basis. That’s a different discussion though.
Back on topic.
Here’s the thing — a lot of these nuggets of wisdom are heralded as the coveted “golden rules” of writing and truth be told, I believe they had some validity to that title a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away). But over time as we moved into the information age, it allowed accessibility to knowledge fast and free. Unfortunately, as data came at us by the nanoseconds our need to absorb this information adapted and so did the information.
What were expansive and well-thought out guides to improving your craft now became watered-down, overly simplified slug notes that tell you what to do but don’t actually teach you shit.
Hopefully, this will change that.
As I stated, these rules come from an origin of good intentions but when I think back to my college years, we never talked about “rules”. Instead we had in-depth conversations (sometimes arguments) on how to improve aspects of one’s story. It wasn’t until my post-collegiate years that I started to hear these rules and I became frustrated at the misguidance they contributed to the medium. They “suck” not because they aren’t helpful, but because they are void of any real insight behind their cliché rhetoric.
Enough ranting though. Let’s get to it, shall we?
Why It Sucks: Writing more at the very basic level can make you more efficient. It’s almost like muscle memory, the act of constant repetition will make the process of writing easier but beyond that, this rule doesn’t provide anything crucial to developing the quality of your work.
I can sit down and play the piano everyday but if all I do is play the same sequence of notes over and over again, I’m really not accomplishing much of anything. What will make me a better pianist is the act of playing different notes, learning different compositions, and so on and so forth. That’s what where the difference is at.
The same must be applied to your writing. It comes down to developing the intricacies of the craft, being expansive with your efforts. Writing without any real direction or purpose is useless writing. Just speaking on my own personal experience, I’ve done some of my best writing during periods when I was doing my least amount of writing. How so? Because I had developed a strong understanding of my strengths and flaws and knew that if I sat down and tried to write without a clear agenda, it would be a waste.
Not a wasted word. This has been a main point to my literary thinking all my life. — Hunter S. Thompson
White It Sucks: It’s not about how much you read but what you read. Think of it this way:
John reads 50–100 pages a day but everything he reads is from pop culture magazines and websites dedicated to ancient alien discoveries with invalid sources.
Not saying John is an idiot but he probably wouldn’t do well if he needed to speak at an AIA event. The main point is that the quality of your reading will shape the quality of your writing. It’s actually okay to read low-bar stuff, just as long as you understand that’s what it is and can utilize it in a unique way to improve your writing. The problem is most people ignore the varying quality in reading material.
The other important aspect of this rule is that it’s missing its other half — study more. You can read the classics all day, every day but if you don’t actually study and comprehend what makes the classics great, you are doing yourself a disservice.
(Only) Write What You Know
Why It Sucks: Have you ever time traveled? Have you ever been to war, particularly during medieval times? Have you ever been a detective trying to solve a mysterious murder? No, no, and no. So you should never write about any of those things (on top of countless other subjects) because you know nothing about them…right?
This by far is the most misguided and crock-of-shit rule in my shamelessly biased opinion. Hell, if this rule was followed like one of the ten commandments, 99% of journalists wouldn’t have a fuckin’ career.
The crux of this fucked up rule is that it actually could be one of the greatest rules of all time (shout out to Kanye) with just a slight revision. What makes writing such a powerful medium is that it’s about discovery — discovery of new ideas, new experiences. This rule only aims to discourage that from any aspiring writer.
What this rule really should be is:
If you want to write about a subject you know nothing about, research the hell out of it before you start writing about it.
Of course writing about things you’ve already had experiences with isn’t a bad route to go either, just look at James Baldwin’s body of work for reference. It goes without saying though, Baldwin’s choice to focus on topics familiar to him had more to do with his moral intention rather than him following some a rule.
Write what you know, but also write some shit you don’t know about, just make sure you take the time to do your research beforehand.
Use Proper Grammar
Why It Sucks: It restricts your style. Plain and simple. If everyone used proper grammar without compromise, the world of literature would be a very boring place.
Relative parallel: In film, continuity is important. If a character takes a bite of a cookie, that bite should be present in every cut afterwards. But a director may break this rule to highlight a motif or to create a surreal effect for the audience.
The same goes for the use of grammar. Now, I’m not saying fuck grammar, it is without a doubt important to know proper grammar. For example, if you’re writing an educational essay you would need to stick to the rules of grammar quite religiously. But in regards to fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and other forms of literature, grammar is selective and your decision to use it or abandon it should have reason behind it.
Grammar, like anything else, is a tool and sometimes its misuse can add power to your story. Even some of the greatest writers of all time believed in this notion.
You can be a little ungrammatical if you come from the right part of the country.. — Robert Frost
Use A Three Act Structure
Why It Sucks: The story is done when it’s done. If it takes three acts, great. If it takes more, that’s great too. Telling someone to use a three-act structure is the equivalent to telling someone to build a house with only a kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom. Yeah you have everything you need but sometimes a motherfucker may want a room for their ship-in-a-bottle collection. Scratch that: they need a room for their ship-in-a-bottle collection.
Your story may be the same. It may need a fourth act to expand on some themes from earlier acts and in the world of journalism the three-act structure usually goes right out the window (real life events don’t abide by any structure).
The three-act formula, in its true sense, is just a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s it. I mean the process of food consumption is in three-acts: cooking, eating, pooping. It all really comes down to how you want to fit certain movements of the story within those acts. In fact, maybe the poop part isn’t really the end, maybe they go for seconds after that.
Like other rules, it falls on such vague terms it has little to no direct effect on legitimately improving your writing. In fact, the structure rule collapses on itself when you bring in The Hero’s Journey which is a 12-act structure but yet many will inception those acts into the three-act structure to falsely validate the rule.
An act itself is nothing more than a chunk of a story and even then what you may perceive as one particular act may not be seen as such by another observer. It’s incredibly subjective as to where an act may begin or end.
Am I saying don’t ever use a three-act structure? No. Dependent on what you’re trying to accomplish, it can be very useful. Hell some of the best jokes out there (whether by intention or coincidence) follow the beginning, middle, and end method.
In a way, this is relative to the grammar bit. You should definitely know about the structure and how it’s utilized but you should not hesitate to leave it on the side of the road if necessary.
I hope I didn’t come off too abrasive but with how often these rules are taken as bible, I felt adding a bit of punch to my prose was necessary. I have to reiterate that these rules have honest origins but like a lot of things, as time goes on, information tends to get manipulated. For better or worse, and in this case it leans towards the latter.
If there’s anything to take away from this, it’s to take everything with a grain of salt (even this post). There are very few things in this world, especially when it comes to writing, that are so black and white. Regardless of what rules you choose to follow, the only thing that matters is that the story is good (most of the time. See: Twilight series).
There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be. — Doris Lessing
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