Because at some point, you started breaking them.
And you can’t technically break rules you didn’t know exist.
When I think about it, I don’t actually know the answer to this question. Did I learn them from taking a class? Reading? The internet?
Do you learn how to write well just by writing more often?
Look, I’m no expert. Just because you manipulate The Force for a long time doesn’t make you the Grand Master Jedi. But I think (hope) you’ve been around long enough to trust that I do know what I’m doing. I’m by no means the best writer out there, but I have gotten to a point where I know the rules … enough that I can break them, and do it strategically.
This question has been bouncing around in my head all week. When did I learn these rules? Where did that knowledge come from? Is it different for everyone?
What are the rules of good writing?
I’m going to be honest with you: I hate the thought that writing has rules. I think of writing as something freeing, something that isn’t meant to confine me.
Yet I started teaching people how to write, sort of, when I became the managing editor of an online magazine, and I realized that rules actually do matter. You’d be surprised how many English and journalism majors still struggle with the basics.
I don’t think of them as rules, though, as much as I think of them as good practices.
Don’t use passive voice. Write sentences in the positive instead of the negative (I wasn’t aware he hated pizza” sounds a lot better than “I did not know he did not like pizza”). Use simple sentences. Don’t use a big word unless it belongs there.
Good writing is a skill. What you do with it is up to you.
There’s a reason why all good writers read
Making time for reading, as you know, is a must if you’re ever going to launch your writing career off the metaphorical ground. At first, we read because we’re looking for a good story, a way to be entertained. Early on, we take stylistic elements of other writers’ techniques and mimic them, the same way a small child “plays doctor” with a toy stethoscope.
Slowly, over time, we learn to build up our own techniques from the ones we learned from reading other writers’ stories. We can then create completely dependent of those writers while still enjoying the stories they tell.
Some fiction we read is more formula-esque: it follows the rules. Books for younger readers do this for a reason. We have to start there, before we can move on to reading more complex material. It’s the exact same way with writing.
You start learning the rules of your native language early
And you start writing early, too. Weirdly, I still remember many of the essays I wrote in fifth grade (also one of my favorite years in school still to this day). You learn how to use your transitions (first, next, finally) so that you can smoothly move between topics. You learn grammar and spelling and how to do everything exactly the way someone tells you to.
Little did we know, we were just being set up to shatter all those expectations.
Then, at the high school level, you might take a creative writing class. I don’t know about yours, but in my classes, we broke all the rules from Day 1, and I hated it. My creative writing teacher called me out because he knew I was uncomfortable, and that is why those three years changed my whole life as a writer, even though I veered off course a little in college.
You need not only the teacher responsible for showing you how to do it the same way as everyone else, but also the one who will force you to stop following the crowd and do it your own way.
Maybe you read a lot of “how-to” books about writing, or reads blogs just like this one (there are a lot of them, unfortunately for me). Maybe you studied literature so that you could figure out how to do things in a way no one else has done before.
Somehow, you learned to break the rules. And I bet you’re very glad you did.
Image courtesy of cdn.lifebuzz.com.
Meg is the managing editor at College Lifestyles magazine, a guest contributor with Lifehack and a guest blogger for Food & Nutrition Magazine. She is an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner and has also written for Teen Ink and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter.