Rules Are Made To Be Doubted

Writers do not need rules. Rather, we need education and guidance—we need to learn how others have written, and how we might.

Dale Stromberg
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Writers do not need rules. Rather, we need education and guidance—we need to learn how others have written, and how we might.

The writing rules often encountered in listicles or blogs are punchy and pithy—which makes them useless. Education is voluminous. To be an author demands untold hours studying the poetics and mechanics of language and the innumerable intricacies of storytelling. Voracious reading and keen consideration are needed to master even things as seemingly trivial as the series comma or the optimal position of an adverb – to say nothing of theme, character, plot and the rest.

This being so, what in the world is the educational use of isolated apothegms like, “Use strong verbs,” or, “Show, don’t tell”? Such rules feebly offer to stand in for education, delivering a punchline when the mind wants a process. They are akin to a math instructor who, instead of teaching students to solve problems, merely tells them the answers. A writer who has learned to choose the needful verb—be it ‘weak’ or ‘strong’—requires no such rule; a writer who has not, had better take the time to learn.

Such rules are also unarguable—again, useless. Argumentation is at the core of guidance, by which I mean the contributions of a writing partner, tutor or editor. Education can be one-way: the textbook does not adapt to the reader. But guidance is personal; it is responsive—unlike a rule.

Consider this: “Always use the right word in the right place.” Why does this fail as a rule? Because, rather than supplying an all-purpose prescription, it immediately provokes questions: How do you define the ‘right word’? And how do you locate the ‘right place’? These demand answers, which will surely raise new questions. It is here that guidance begins: This ‘poor rule’ is a handy discussion prompt for a tutor or writing partner.

On the other hand, “Never use adverbs” succeeds as a rule and fails as guidance. It tells the naïve rule-seeker everything she wants to hear, and nothing she needs to know. It invites no further questioning; it provokes no dialogue beyond, perhaps, incredulous protest at the blanket condemnation of a part of speech. (It also contains an adverb, but never mind that.)

Writing rules do not educate or guide. We learn vastly more from doubting them than from heeding them.

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