I’ve recently come across the Guardian’s “Ten Rules for Writing“, a selection of writing rules chosen by authors and presented in nice, compact little lists. Some of the writers offer great advice, such as Diana Athill’s tip to “Cut (perhaps that should be CUT): only by having no inessential words can every essential word be made to count.” Others provide no great insight or revelation that will aid your writing process, the rule being little more than an ambiguous attempt at being witty. Anne Enright’s “rule” that “the first 12 years are the worst” means nothing to me, so how can I consider it a rule for writing?
This is not the only article of writing rules that I’ve stumbled upon in my burgeoning writing career. I used to take authors’ writing advice as gospel, jotting quotes down on sticky notes and pasting them onto my computer monitor and desk. Some still hang, in fact, pinned in place by tacks or taped, never to be looked at, much less read. I’ve read Stephen King’s On Writing and have written about it before; it’s one of my favorite books on writing and I’d recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat. However, one of the issues I have with all these writing rules is that, while sometimes incredibly useful, they can also be incredibly destructive to your own writing process.
Writing is a very personal art and, like painting, there is a technique you must acquaint yourself with. About the only rule is to apply the paint to a canvas, or words to a page. You may be a self-taught artist who, after practice but no formal studying, creates a masterpiece that will stun all who look upon it. The same can be said for writing: so long as you create something that is readable, how you ended up at that point is entirely up to you. Strictly following “rules” instead of seeing them as mere guidelines and advice to be taken with a grain of salt will only hamper your progress. What works for you is what works for you, whether or not you break an arbitrary rule.
I’m going to put this bold and center, because it is the only rule to writing that absolutely must be followed.
The only rule for writing is to write.
I realize this post is similar to my most recent one, but aspiring writers try so hard to fit a mold that not only do they risk losing their personal style, but some of these rules simply do not make sense. I read some of them and see not only contradiction, but desperation to be validated. If you are writing, then you are a writer. Don’t worry about whether or not Hemingway would sneer at you or accept you as a colleague; worry about finishing your work, making it the best it can be, and getting it out there in the world to be read, enjoyed, hated, torn apart, mass produced, adapted into film, and burned. That is the very essence of being a writer: conjuring into existence a story that affects those who read it.
So get out there and do just that.