The Crime Readers' Association

Rules for Writers – David Beckler

23rd January 2015

When I began writing a few years ago, I hadn’t a clue about the craft of writing and didn’t even know if I could sustain a narrative for the required 80-100k words. For thirty odd years the only writing I’d done was a few reports and business proposals.

After finishing my first manuscript I decided to take writing seriously. I began to study, reading dozens of books on how to write and discovered rules that governed writing. Not always the same ones but a core kept cropping up. “Show don’t tell,” “don’t head-hop,” “you must spend at least 70% of the narrative with your protagonist,” “avoid info dumps,” “avoid cliché,” “avoid passive voice,” “avoid adverbs.” Lots of avoids.

I wrote two more manuscripts, then decided I should join a writing group. Almost everyone who goes is aware of these rules and if I break any, my reading falters as I look ahead, trying to spot further violations. If by some chance I don’t notice them, I will invariably hear about it in the feedback.

In the distant past, before writing ate my spare time, I used to devour books, being drawn in by the characters and story, without paying too much attention to style. I was aware that some writers got in the way of the story whilst others, whose styles varied widely, managed to keep in the background.

Once I became aware of these rules I read with them at the back of my mind. Big mistake. Books I’d have once enjoyed, irritated me if the author broke too many of the rules. Instead of being drawn in and concentrating on the story, I noticed the writing.

When I discussed books with my non-writer friends I’d say I didn’t enjoy a particular novel because the author kept changing the point of view character, often in the same scene. Many hadn’t noticed or if they had, it didn’t bother them.

In other cases I’d complain about an ‘info dump’ where the author inserted detailed information with no reference to the rest of the scene. My friends said, “I found that useful, it reminded me where we were up to.”

So I began to wonder why we have these rules. Do they exist to improve the reader’s experience, or are they just for writers, so we can differentiate those who stick to them from those who don’t? Pouring scorn on the latter?

If an interesting story is well told with compelling characters that draw us in, does it matter if the author hasn’t stuck to the accepted story-telling convention? What do you think?

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