Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What Are the Rules of Writing?

Q: Are there some basic rules or principles of writing that I should be aware of? I know the best way to improve my writing is to practice, but am I missing out by not knowing some "Writing 101" concepts?
--Katie at Truly Appetizing

A: Great question, and the answer is a bit complicated. Yes, there are some basic and obvious rules of the road with writing, examples of which are proper spelling, grammar, noun/verb agreement, etc.

There are also many more subtle (and difficult to describe) rules, such as "know your audience," "write from your readers' perspectives," "pay attention to the tone of your writing," and so forth. There are many more--these are just a few examples.

However, at its core, I don't believe writing is a rules-based exercise. Writing is a rule-breaking exercise. The best writers broke rules that we thought couldn't be broken (e.g., Virgina Woolf breaking the rule of having time pass a fixed rate in a novel; T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound breaking the rules of form and meter in poetry; James Joyce breaking umpteen rules of fiction writing, etc.).

So the answer to your question is "it depends." That's why I counsel anyone who wants to improve his or her writing to do three things:

1) Read other rule-breaking writers and think about what worked, what didn't work, and why.

2) Break rules purposely with your own writing and see what happens.

3) Have fun with it--and keep at it!