Why do we have rules for writing?

August 24, 2015 at 10:01 am

rules for writing finalWhen I wrote my debut novel I could already write pretty well. However, I was oblivious to the fact that, when it comes to writing a novel (or even a work of non-fiction, for that matter) there are rules I had to follow.

Rules for writing? I thought I already knew about those – use correct spelling, grammar and punctuation; don’t make your paragraphs too long; have plenty of action. What I didn’t know was that there were a myriad of other ones that publishers demand today – show don’t tell; strict rules about point of view; not too many words that end in ‘ly’; favouring the word ‘said’ when carrying dialogue.

Even more confusing was the discovery that every country has a different way of styling a book. Sure, I knew that in the US people spell a number of words differently from the way they’re spelled in Australia, but I didn’t know that we used single quotation marks for dialogue instead of doubles, spaces both sides of ellipsis, and a number of others as well. Even more confusing was the discovery of just how often the little details can vary from publisher to publisher, not to mention that, since there are so many self-published books out there, there can be any number of variations there as well.

At first I scoffed at this. Who makes these rules? Who says we need to obey them? My writing communicates what I want to say. That’s all that mattered! Sure, I can write in whatever way I choose. Unfortunately, that won’t make a publisher agree to publish me. I discovered quickly that not following these rules can be the difference between being considered by a traditional publisher and being rejected.

Being hired as a profession editor, first for non-fiction, and then to edit fiction as well, I had to learn all these rules in detail, and since my trilogy was done in US styling, since the first book was set in America, I had to learn American styling quickly too. I don’t think I got it all right (and in one case it was deliberate) but I learned a lot along the way, also learning just how much more readable books are when they follow a lot of these rules. For instance, I like it when point of view doesn’t dart all over the place, and show don’t tell does make a novel easier to read.

Are you an author? What do you think about following these rules? Do you follow them? Are you a reader? Do you notice any of these things? Leave a comment below and let me know.

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