Rules are Made to be Broken … Sometimes

Today, I came across a blog post over at Hunter’s Writings that contained a very handy infographic on writing rules. Of course, all writers know that the “rules” are made to be broken. The thing to remember, though, is that some rules are more breakable than others, and even the more breakable rules are there for a reason.

The Infographic : The Writer’s Rule Book or Writing Maxims

The things to remember before you break the “rules”:

1) You need to know the rules and why they are there before you break them.

I’m sorry. I know it’s tedious and boring and that we all want to do things in our own way. No one want’s their work to look cookie-cutter or like anyone else’s. We each want our work to be unique. The thing is, my way of showing rather than telling or of using active rather than passive voice will look nothing like your way of doing those things. The rules are there because they have been proven over time to work, but there are as many different ways of following the rules as there are unique author voices in the world.

2) you need to know why you are breaking the rules and what the outcome is likely to be or what effect the rule-breaking is likely to have on your work (or at least what you hope the outcome or effect will be).

It isn’t always possible to know what the outcome or effect is going to be, and I am all for experimentation and trying new things. Just do it with a critical eye. Ask yourself every so often, “Is this working? Why/why not? Can I tweak something to make it work better?” and most importantly, “Is it helping or hurting the telling of my story?” and “Is it distracting?”

Get good beta readers you can trust to tell you when something is or isn’t working. Point out your wanton rule-breaking and ask them what they think of it. There is no shame in admitting that something doesn’t work the way you hoped it would. Sometimes it works better! Sometimes you can tweak it and make it work. And sometimes you have to go back and change things. That’s why it’s called the creative process.

Some people break the rules without those two things, and it works out. Erin Morgenstern did it brilliantly in The Night Circus​, and I recall reading something she said about not knowing that writing in present tense was (at the time) considered “against the rules.” That rule has, of course, changed since then, and writing in the present tense has become fairly common. I would point out, however, that it is not always done well (it is frequently done very badly), and should, therefore, be done carefully. I would place, “Don’t write in the present tense,” in that Level 3 section of the infographic.

So I’ll add a third thing to remember about breaking the rules:

The “rules” can and do change.


For the record, I don’t agree with all of the rules presented in the infographic. I know how to break every single one of them in Level 3. But I also know how, when, and why it is or is not a good idea in my own work or writing process. I flat out disagree with the one that says, “If you want to sell, write to current trends” (if you do that, you’ll always be behind). And of course, it’s impossible to put all the “rules” on one infographic. There are whole books dedicated to the topic.

The trick is to break the rules in the best way possible to enhance your work. Be flexible in both following and breaking the rules. The goal is to always to tell your story as effectively as possible.

via #atozchallenge W is for The Writing Rule Book [Infographic].


The Value of the Whole Story

I don’t usually do this stuff on my blog, but this one I have to mention. What I have to say doesn’t have anything to do with the police or who was right or wrong in a given situation or circumstances surrounding incidents or riots.

What I have to say is about journalism and media in this country.

I was a journalism major in college, and I had a great teacher who taught me about things like the absolute necessity of learning all sides of any story no matter what your personal feelings are about that story. I was taught about the ways an incomplete story fuels misunderstanding and division and the ways in which incomplete stories can be used to divide and weaken everyone. I was also taught how much power the whole story can have to change viewpoints and encourage empathy and understanding.

I am horrified every single day at the way the power of the modern media is used to divide and weaken us when it could be showing us things that have the power to bring us together and empower us. It could be showing us the whole story–all sides–and encouraging us to see past the ends of our own noses and understand that ours is not the only perspective.

And the worst part is that we don’t just let our media do this. We ask for it.

We ask for this in our news reporting by choosing to ignore any side of a news story that makes us uncomfortable or challenges our own views. We don’t want to have to accept that maybe we are wrong about something. Or worse, accept that maybe someone else is right. We don’t want to be reminded that the “other side” is made up of people, just like us, with families and feelings and valid opinions with valid reasoning of their own.

Ask yourself how many pictures you’ve seen recently of riots and looting. How many images of destruction and fighting. And not just about recent events in Baltimore. Think about world events, too. Did you pick up the paper? Click the link? Watch the video? And what about those papers and links and videos that show another perspective–maybe one that doesn’t quite fit with what you think you already know or believe?

We ask for sensationalism every day by choosing to only pay attention to the stories that focus on destruction and death. We demand excitement before we will spend our limited attention spans on anything as frivolous as the news, right? And we ask for a one-sided view of events by choosing only those sources that fit with our established thoughts and beliefs.

The unfortunate side effect of this is the feeling that is generated among people with something to say that violence and destruction are the only ways to get noticed. The only way to get attention for issues that need dealt with and problems that need solved. “If it bleeds, it leads,” as the saying goes, and people are conditioned by the way news is handled to believe it.

The viral image below shows citizens coming together. They are standing together as a community instead of tearing their community apart. They are doing so peacefully, and I did not get it from the usual, “official” media sources. I saw this on social media, not on any news outlet. Why? Because that news doesn’t get ratings or sell copies. Because we, as a society, have decreed that we save our attention for violence and spectacular exhibition. And nudity. Don’t forget the nudity.

There’s none of that in this picture.

This is a picture of people making a simple and powerful statement by doing what they think is right. It is a picture of people saying, peacefully and in no uncertain terms, “Enough. Here is the line, and we are it.”


How might news coverage change if we showed our media and news outlets that this is worth our time and attention? How might our world change if we showed it that peaceful statements can move us to action? What if we show them that we want to see all the sides of a news story?

The bad/scary/ugly/sensational parts of the news are still news. They happen, and they have a significant impact on the world and are, therefore, important. But they are not the whole story. We really should be demanding more of both our media and ourselves.

We should be looking for those parts of any news story that make us uncomfortable or challenge our views. We should be looking for those parts of the story that make the “other side” more real, more human, more relatable. We should be demanding the same from those we trust to provide us with something as important–as absolutely critical–as the news.

Incomplete reporting creates an “us and them” mentality. Seeing the whole story might just remind us that the world is really filled with just “us”.