Rules are made to be broken
Whether you’re setting out to write your first book, you’re already onto your third, or you’re just trying to improve the writing on your blog, chances are you’ve browsed an article or two on the best writing advice; the so-called ‘rules’ that you should follow before you can consider yourself a writer.
Well, rules are all well and good, but they don’t always fit our busy lives. We have businesses to run, a family to take care of, to say nothing of our own self-care.
And there’s one piece of advice that’s more useful to you as a writer than any other:
Rules were made to be broken.
What works for one person won’t necessarily work for another, and trying to live up to an expert’s restrictions may actually do more harm than good.
Rules for writers
There are 5 pieces of writing advice that you hear and read again and again. I’ve even used most of them myself!
The reality is that they don’t work for everyone, and it’s possible to break them to make them even more effective for you. Try it and see…
1. Write the way you speak
This piece of advice seems great in theory, and it’s thrown around in most ‘how to write’ articles and books. I even use it myself. But what does it actually mean?
Taylor Lindstrom, writing on Men with Pens, give this advice a good twist:
Write the way you talk – if you can speak persuasively, eloquently, and clearly.
Does this sound like you?
I honestly don’t know if I am always persuasive and eloquent when I speak.
In fact, when we speak, the words are only part (a small part according to some) of the message.
We also rely on body language, atmosphere, inflection, and one-on-one persuasion to carry much of the meaning.
Our vocabulary and our powers of precision often come second – which is not a luxury we have on paper.
As you develop your writing style, don’t try to be exactly ‘you’; the reality is that you often develop a different voice on paper, and, for many of you, that can be an advantage. You can find a style that is perhaps more poetic, or more influential, or more measured.
I find, for example, that I can be much kinder in writing than I am when I speak — when I say something that I know will be taken as a joke or a light-hearted leg-pulling in person, it’s not necessarily so when I write. And I have to be much more careful about how I express myself.
2. Don’t use jargon
This is great advice.
Great if you’re writing a blog post or a column for a wide audience — no-one wants to Google your overused acronyms on the train to work or during a quick scan of Facebook.
But media and business are more fragmented than ever before. You are more likely to be writing for a specific group of experts then at any other time in history – and you should embrace and adapt to that.
And peppering your word with a little jargon can be a great way to position yourself as an expert within your industry — a great marketing strategy if your audience is your peer group.
If your blog or book is in a specific niche, and has an audience who you know will understand and even relish the jargon, then use it.
Sure, you can put in parentheses the more common meaning, or the full exposition of the acronym, but do give yourself the liberty to use some jargon — in the right context. It can show respect for your reader — that you know and understand them and that you are not writing a beginner text.
I check the reading level of each article on this blog before we go to press, and sometimes it comes back as ‘fairly difficult’ or even ‘difficult’, but I don’t tone it down. Even though we are told in the marketing books that we should write for an average reading age of 12, I want us to hold higher standards, and respect that you probably have a degree or two.
Using the language of your audience shows that you’re part of the same ‘team’, and there’s no need to patronise them by oversimplifying your concepts.
3. Write every day
This is the #1 rule for writers that I want you to break.
Please, do not write every day.
Especially if you’re writing a book.
To tell yourself that you’ll write every day is simply too stressful and you will become disheartened. And it doesn’t actually make for great writing, which needs some space between the lines.
Writing every day is meant to prevent writers block, hone your craft, shape writing into a habit, and keep ideas fresh.
But unless you’re a dedicated writer who gets paid to come up with ideas, you don’t have that kind of time. Stephen King may write four hours every day, but you’re not Stephen King (sorry!).
Chances are, you have a job, or a business to run, and writing your book is something you’re trying to do on top of everything else.
If you set your goals to be too challenging: ‘write everyday’ for example, it does the same thing to your brain as going on a diet; it sets you up for failure.
Your brain doesn’t connect the short-term goal of writing every day to the long-term goal of finishing your book — it assesses plans, and provides a set amount of motivation to each task depending on how realistic it thinks the task is.
Writing every single day?
says your unconscious mind.
And, if you skip a day, or you don’t feel like it, your motivation to write decreases.
And for every day skipped, or every time you didn’t live up to those unrealistic expectations, your will to finish diminishes more and more. You’re failing to meet that challenging target you set yourself, and therefore failure becomes inevitable.
Instead, set more realistic expectations.
A good writing session, three to four times a week is quite enough to get your book done in a reasonable timescale (say, two to three months).
- And, when you sit down (or stand up) to write, make it quality time.
- Just write — complete one section after another section. Without stopping.
- Or edit the parts that need improving.
- And take some time to just write freestyle and see where your ideas take you.
By making the time that you do have quality time, you will build better habits and write a better book.
One hour of serious writing is better than four hours of messing around.
4. Write what you know
Yes, obviously you have to know and understand what you’re writing about.
But sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves to be ‘experts’. And this can be another knock to our self-confidence.
And when you’re a long-time expert, and when your topic or your expertise has become so familiar to you that you automatically explain it to people the same way every time, the quality of your work suffers. It starts to lose its originality and you’re no longer guiding people, you’re instructing them.
Often, the best way to teach, and the best way to get enthusiastic about your topic again, is through learning.
Become a student again.
You’ll discover perspectives, and you’ll also develop your expertise in this new area by teaching it.
Don’t let your lack of knowledge hold you back from learning more about a topic and trying to pass on this knowledge. The whole premise behind the international bestseller, Freakonomics came from a journalist and an economist marvelling at the things they could not answer.
So they decided to research them, and write about them.
Do you think you could do the same? Sometimes the best books are the ones that are written by a curious writer.
5. Work on one thing at a time
Henry Miller’s #1 Commandment:
Work on one thing at a time until finished.
And his tenth:
Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
This is fantastic advice — and, again, one I give to authors again and again.
Finish the book you are working on. There will be more books, later.
It’s not at all new to those of us who are juggling many projects at a time.
We get it, we really do; we just don’t do it. Sticking to the task at hand until it’s finished, before moving on to the next one, is not always viable.
Not only do we multi-task on a daily basis (hands up who checks email while doing something else — in a meeting, at the shops, while writing a blog post??), but, with writing, or any creative endeavour, one piece of work can inspire another.
In your business you have to think about creating your products and services, your ‘work’, your marketing, your idea development, and now you’re adding a book to the list.
If I’m writing a blog post and it gives me an idea for another, I might add it to the calendar there and then, or at least, I’ll make a note on my pad and do it later.
Great ideas don’t wait for anyone, and nor should they.
To manage everything in your business or your life, you have to be able to stop when an idea hits, put aside what you’re working on now long enough to note down or implement the idea you just had, and then get back to the first piece of work.
Make your own rules
It’s clear that good writing advice is not approached with ‘one size fits all’ in mind. And, as much as you shouldn’t take everything at face value, nor should you disregard everything.
Read the books, absorb the rules, learn why they work for some, but never be constrained by them.
And, perhaps the best writing advice of all….?
Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously. (Lev Grossman)
There’s always a way that fits you better that will give you a better outcome. You just have to find out what it is.
What writing rules are you breaking? And which ones are you sticking to? Let us know on social media!