5 Writing Rules You Should Break

It’s Weiland Week at A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, with K.M. Weiland, owner of Wordplay, one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers. She is the author of historical and speculative fiction, including her latest, Behold the Dawn, and she recently released her instructional CD, Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.

I like to call her Katie.


Writers and pirates have more in common than you might think. Aside from the truth that we all enjoy roaring out a hearty, “ahoy, matey,” now and then, the biggest commonality is the fact that neither of us are sworn to obey the rules. Captain Barbossa’s words in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl apply just as much to writers as to his grubby chums: “The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” Following are five rules worth the trouble of donning your pirate patch:

1. Never edit as you go.

Why this is a rule: Too many authors have shipwrecked themselves upon the shores of discouragement and procrastination by endlessly editing what they’ve already written, instead of spreading their sails and writing on.

Why you should break it: Editing as you go produces a tighter first draft and allows you to keep your bearings in your story and mend plot holes as you go. Some authors (myself included) get more than a little crazy if they know there’s a problem with that previous scene and they can’t go back to fix it. If you can stave off the pitfalls of perfectionism and procrastination, editing as you go may be a more productive current for you to follow.

2. Never use modifiers.

Why this is a rule: Instead of allowing powerful nouns and verbs to carry the weight of their sentences, inexperienced authors often pile on the adjectives and adverbs—resulting in waterlogged descriptions.

Why you should break it: Quite simply, sometimes modifiers are the best choice for the sentence. Used judiciously, they can offer nuances otherwise unavailable. When in doubt, use this handy litmus test: If you remove the adjective or adverb, does the meaning and flavor of the sentence change for the worse?

3. Always write what you know.

Why this is a rule: If a writer doesn’t know what they’re talking about, they can’t be expected to portray their subject matter accurately or convincingly to the reader.

Why you should break it: Many authors take this rule at face value and assume they’re only supposed to write about what they’ve personally experienced. However, when they write honestly about the human condition, even if that condition takes place in outer space, they are writing what they know. When they then fill in the gaps with research, they’re also writing what they know.

Really, this isn’t a rule that needs breaking so much as redefining.

4. Never use the passive voice.

Why this is a rule: Passive verbs get the point across, but they lack energy and flavor. How much more strength is in the active sentence,“Blake’s bat hit the ball,” than the passive, “The ball was hit by Blake’s bat”?

Why you should break it: Just because active verbs are preferable in most instances doesn’t mean passive verbs should be neglected altogether. Sometimes the construction of a sentence demands a passive verb, in order to place emphasis on the object acted upon (the ball in the sentence above) rather than the person doing the acting. Sometimes passive construction is necessary to vary the intensity of a predominantly active paragraph. And sometimes passive verbs are preferable simply because of the inherent understatement they offer.

5. Never use any verb another than “said” in a dialogue tag.

Why this is a rule: “Said” is the preferred dialogue tag because it does its job efficiently and invisibly, allowing the dialogue to carry the dramatic weight. More energetic tags, such as “chattered,” “whined,” or “cooed,” generally offer information that should be apparent from the dialogue itself.

Why you should break it: Very occasionally, a more descriptive verb is necessary to convey an important nuance, such as tone of voice (“whispered” or “shouted”) or to add personality to the text. Used wisely, an infrequent deviation from this rule can strengthen the impact of your dialogue rather than weakening it.

Art of any kind by its very nature demands the freedom to experiment and explore, while rules tend to box the author into an absolutism that stifles creativity. Writing guidelines exist for good reason. Almost without exception they provide useful examples of techniques proven to work. But don’t chain your muse to the tyranny of the rules. Learning when, why, and how to break the rules is just as important as learning to observe them.

Plus, as any pirate can tell you, breaking the rules is way more fun. Arrgh!

K.M. Weiland writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in the sandhills of western Nebraska. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, editing services, workshops and her recently-released instructional CD, Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. She can be reached through her blog, Wordplay, and Twitter.

66 thoughts on “5 Writing Rules You Should Break

  1. Carol Riggs says:

    Ooo! I love this post. I agree to ’em all. Especially #1–I just can’t seem to move on until I’ve whipped a scene into shape. I just have to be careful I don’t linger there so long I start polishing. 🙂 Har–love the Captain Barbossa reference. So true.

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      I’m an editor-as-I-go myself. If I know the scenes I’ve already written are sloppy, I just seem to write sloppier and sloppier as I go. Gotta get things fixed up shipshape before I can move on effectively.

  2. Great post. I pretty much break all of these, especially the first one. I have a hard time if I don’t edit while I go because I forget things and make mistakes that are harder to catch.

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      Thinking outside the box – whether the box is “The Rules,” or subject matter, or narrative voice – is the few step toward worthwhile writing. It’s important to understand the value of the boxes, but when we allow ourselves to be imprisoned in them, we’re short-changing both ourselves and our potential readers.

  3. Nate Wilson says:

    Exactly. I’m all for breaking the rules (and/or guidelines), but first you need to understand why the rules exist in the first place. Only then can you break them judiciously.

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      In my opinion, only one rule applies in writing: Learn the rules, so you know when and when not to break them.

  4. Haha, I love how you’re on my blog telling people what rules they should follow and here you’re talking about what rules they SHOULD break.

    Great post. Really, I agree with EVERY point. Number 3 is my favorite, especially the thing you say about not having to write about your personal experience but being able to write from a place of truth. Thanks again for some GREAT advice and reminders.

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      I know! Great timing, isn’t it? Really, these two posts do a nice job of summing up the dichotomy of writing: Learn the rules to break the rules. No wonder new writers are often so confused! But, although this dichotomy certainly presents its fair share of misunderstanding and frustration, I believe that it’s also one of the most freeing aspects of any art form.

      1. Victoria says:

        You know what Flannery O’Connor said: “You can do anything in fiction you can get away with. Unfortunately, nobody’s ever gotten away with much.”

        1. K.M. Weiland says:

          Love it! Someone else said (can’t remember who) that the only thing required to successfully break the rules in fiction is to “just be brilliant.” Easy-peasy, right? 😉

  5. I’m with Captain Barbossa. Writing rules are helpful but shouldn’t be thought of as immutable. #5 is the one that I notice being broken the most. Characters not only whisper, they croak, yell, mumble, say quietly, shout… sometimes all on the same page. I’m sure I’ve used and abused all five of these ones but only with a specific reason. Thanks for this great reminder.

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      The key to breaking rules *well* is doing it for a specific reason. Otherwise, the result is usually just blatant sloppiness.

  6. Nodding furiously at all these points – although I can’t usually edit as I go, I have to close my eyes and immerse instead.

    Literature is full of great people who have broken all these rules with aplomb and panache. And whoever invented that silly rule ‘write what you know’? Half the genres we have wouldn’t exist if writers had followed that rule to the letter.

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      I know I certainly wouldn’t be interested in writing if I were forced to write only what I “know.” I live what I know, so I have little need or desire to rehash it in my fiction. I’d much rather let my wandering foot carry me to unknown horizons.

    2. Phil South says:

      Yeah I’d like to bat the person who said “write what you know” in the head with something heavy. It’s a tight and snappy phrase but down’t really tell you what that means, and people are always trotting it out. Thinking about it all these rules are things that people “trot out”. I always tell people it’s not about writing what you know, it’s about writing YOUR story, a story you have knowledge and passion about. If you are fishmonger you can write about another planet, but it had better be a story you “own” and have passion for. Just my 2p.

      1. K.M. Weiland says:

        Well said. It’s all about “owning” a story, making it so completely ours that it couldn’t be anyone else’s, delving deep into the plot and sharing our passion for it with our readers. That’s what really counts in this business.

        1. Phil South says:

          Thank you, that’s absolutely right. it’s a subject close to my heart. I try and teach people to believe in what they write and themselves. In fact if you’ll forgive an act of blatant self publicity, here’s a post from my blog on this very subject. http://goingdownwriting.wordpress.com/2010/05/04/be-yourself/

        2. Phil South says:

          And seeing this has reminded me how much I love guest posting. You get such lovely comments. Warms the heart, doesn’t it?

          And by the way I forgot to say the words Excellent Post, Katie, you rounded up a herd of my pet hates and humanely put them to rest. 😀

  7. Mary R. P. Schutter says:

    Katie, I love you! Your “5 Writing Rules You Should Break” takes away any guilt I’ve ever felt at breaking the rules. I say, if breaking one of the rules makes your work better, then break away! Thanks again, Katie. And thanks, Victoria, for a great web site. Keep up the good work, ladies!

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      Guilt is too heavy a load for creativity to bear. If we’re feeling guilty about following and/or breaking the rules, we probably don’t have a clear conception of what those rules really entail or why they were put in place to begin with.

  8. Iapetus999 says:

    The hardest “rule” of all that I’ve had to learn is that “all the rules are made to be broken.” Writing books contradict each other, Bloggers put way too much emphasis on certain aspects of writing. A lot of them are just plain wrong. It’s a real mess out there.
    I’ve had people tell me to my face that I would never be published because I used an em-dash incorrectly.

    1. Victoria says:

      Sorry, Andrew. That was me.

      Just kidding!

      You are absolutely correct: it’s a real mess out there. Bad advice is everywhere. People—only take writing advice from folks you trust. Seriously.

    2. K.M. Weiland says:

      Part of the reason we find so much conflicting advice on writing is that writing is an extremely subjective art form. One person’s Pulitzer prize-winner is another person’s doorstop. Ultimately, we all need to identify the methods that resonate with us as readers and writers and follow our gut feelings. However, it’s undeniable that the world offers a consensus on certain rules (grammar, spelling, and punctuation being among the obvious ones), and it’s rarely wise to buck these rules, unless we have a darn good reason for doing so.

  9. Ken Brand says:

    Excellent. I’m pretty sure I break all the rules, not because I’m a rebel-writer, but because I just becoming aware. Thanks for moving me forward.

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      Unaware rebel writers usually just get themselves in trouble. Aware rebel writers, on the other hand, have the opportunity to show the world new and wonderful things,

  10. Yesss! There’s a profound difference between breaking a rule and abusing it, and the abusers are why the rules exist. I’m especially fond of a well-placed passive (horrors!). Sometimes you want to bring readers tight into the action, while others you deliberately want to back them off a bit. Passive can be used as a sneaky text device to control the flow of when and how hard to yank a reader in.

    Thanks for the illuminating post!

    1. Victoria says:

      Do you mean a well-place passive is especially appreciated by you? 🙂

    2. K.M. Weiland says:

      Exactly. I see far too many authors reject passive verbs altogether, because they’re afraid of them. But passive verbs are just as powerful as active verbs – when used in the right context.

  11. Heather Webb says:

    Great post! I agree on all points- rules exist for a reason, but are also made to be broken! As for “writing what you know”, as a hisfic writer, I make it my duty to know a time period or historical figure through extensive research. This means I can “know” whatever I’d like. 🙂 Certainly the human condition does not change!

    BTW, I’m now following you on Twitter. 🙂

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      I also write historical fiction, so I get to walk that wonderful line between researching all the details and making stuff up. It’s a good edge to live on!

  12. V.V. Denman says:

    Yay! Permission to break the rules! Excellent info.

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      What would our mothers think if they knew we’d grow up to be such flagrant rule breakers? :p

  13. Fantastic post KM, and Victoria!

    When I first started writing, or taking my writing seriously I should say, I avoided adjectives and adverbs like the plague, thinking I would be harshly judged if I used them. The result was stilted sentences, paragraphs, whole stories – they were just so flat! But when I let myself loose to write what I wanted to write, ignoring all the rules, the stories became so much more interesting, so much more emotional, (I mainly write about the human condition), and I had so much more fun.
    Of course upon editing some of that “freestyle” didn’t work so well, but that’s what editing is for, and overall it was much more worth it to let go and create!

    Thanks for this wonderful post!

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      In general, I think it’s best to forget about the rules as much as possible when writing. Let the right brain roam free, and just let those creative thoughts flow. There’s plenty of time to haul out the rules and the left brain during edits.

  14. Chris says:

    I’ll just echo most everyone else: learn the rules first, so you know when it makes sense to break them in your work. I feel fortunate that I figured this out fairly early on in my writing career, so I don’t obsess over every freakin’ adverb in my prose.

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      I wrote three novels before I met my first rule. Even though none of those novels were readable, I really believe that having the freedom to let my creativity run free and just have fun during those early years gave me the foundation and the confidence to keep plugging along even after I realized I had a lot to learn.

  15. Kathryn says:

    I like breaking rule #2 the most.

    I sometimes see people write, “She smiled with a sweet expression on her face” rather than just, “She smiled sweetly.” Wordiness is a terrible consequence of a pathological fear of adverbs.

    1. Victoria says:

      You like breaking which rule, Kathryn? “Listen to your editor”? Oh, wait—you follow that one!

      She smiled like a smilodon.

  16. K.M. Weiland says:

    In most instances, I would suggest that”she smiled” is more than adequate to get the point across – especially if the context has established the character’s sweetness. That said, sometimes an adverb *is* just the right word to convey an effect. Patrick O’Brian did just this in the last chapter of The Surgeon’s Mate by adding “unhappily” to a dialogue tag. It struck a perfect note of irony, one of that wouldn’t have been possible with any other part of speech.

  17. Chris says:

    This is a fantastic post. I agree with breaking these rules.

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      Thanks for reading!

  18. About modifiers. Sometimes the need for a modifier indicates a weakness in the language. There isn’t always a word specific and nuanced enough to convey the writer’s meaning and so we have to elaborate with the addition of another word or words.

    It seems that I hit the same bald spots in the English language over and over. The verbs available for the act of seeing are especially paltry: see, watch, look, stare, glance. Since seeing is such a frequent activity the same verbs cycle over and over–drives me crazy. Even modifiers don’t disguise the fact that, dang, there’s that same old verb again.

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      One thing to keep in mind is that “common” verbs, such as those describing the act of looking, aren’t necessarily as weak as we might think, since they offer actions that readers are able to immediately identify with and visualize. Although the occasional modifier is appropriate, more often than not, these verbs stand well on their own, especially within a strong context.

      1. If only there were more to choose from to avoid repetition! It is interesting to examine other languages and see where word choices are plentiful and where they are sparse. My Italian son-in-law asked me for the English word for the last drop in the glass. I was immediately jealous. I wanted a word for the last drop in the glass!

        But yes, you are right, there is no ambiguity when you use a common verb like “look.” The reader sees the action without any effort.

        1. Victoria says:


  19. K.M. Weiland says:

    I’m jealous too! What’s the Italian word? Along the same lines, I was interested to discover this week that there is no word in Spanish for “bullfight.” Their word puts the emphasis on the bull running instead of fighting.

    1. Victoria says:

      Actually, it’s just corrida—they don’t tell you who’s doing the running. And, as someone who’s been to a bullfight, I can tell you it’s not always the bull.

      1. I’m very glad to hear that!

  20. Darned if I can remember–but Italian is well stocked with such words because it has suffixes that indicate things like “last.” So something can become the last of anything with the addition of this suffix, just as anything can become small with the addition of “ino”–as long as it’s masculine–thank God nothing has a gender in English.

    No word for bullfight in Spanish? The emphasis on the bull running seems like an unexpected admission of who is picking the fight with whom.

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      I agree. As ridiculously complicated as English sometimes is, at least we were spared the gender-specific verbs and nouns.

  21. Laurie Boris says:

    Excellent post! The best thing about writing rules is breaking them.

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      Writers *should* be rebels… but definitely informed rebels.

  22. I am breaking the editing rule at the moment and it is working for me. It’s taken me a month to re-write a chapter that had to be completely scrapped, and I have found that reading aloud, along with editing when something sounds “clunky” is making for a chapter I really like.

    I use “whispered” once somewhere else, but that’s one rule one has to be careful with, or your novel will end up sounding like one of those cheesy 50’s novels where everyone growled, muttered and spat answers instead of “said” 🙂

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      The occasional use of a descriptive speaker tag can actually bring an extra bit of oomph to your dialogue. It’s only, as you say, when it’s overused that it becomes problematic.

  23. Rand Styx says:

    “Rules” can be helpful guides to novices and frustrating obstacles imposed by elitists. While there is some science to writing, there is much art. To ban the writer’s use of any word form, tense, or voice is the polar opposite of telling the visual artist to use every available medium and technique in the same painting. The blend of languages that has become modern English is a wordshop equipped with many tools. As a cabinet maker may use certain tools only rarely, there are applications for which a rarely used tool is the best choice.

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      Bravo! Very well said, particularly that first sentence. I find it interesting that the “elitists” are very rarely the true artists. Those who have reached the pinnacle of their craft understand that rules are only stepping stones.

  24. puspa says:

    Now i know why I take weeks to finish even a short short story, and still some thinf/! So it’s the edited thing!!
    Thank you for your great post, now i would not feeling guilty anymore for drop the editing process.

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      Don’t *drop* the editing process completely. It’s vital for every story. Just keep in mind that some of us work better if we edit as we go, instead of waiting until the end of the first draft to dive in.

  25. Peter says:

    Learn the rules first, so you know when it makes sense to break them in your work. I feel fortunate that I figured this out fairly early on in my writing career, so I don’t obsess over every freakin’ adverb in my prose.

    1. K.M. Weiland says:

      If you’re lucky enough to figure this out early on, you’re a lucky writer indeed. So many authors struggle for years with the insistent whisper of “the rules,” even in instances when they know full well they’d be better off bending them a bit.

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