There are a lot of axioms that get tossed around in creative writing courses, books on writing, and of course, the Internet. Often, these little gems are explained to new writers as though they were fact, to be taken for granted.

Just as often, experienced writers will respond by saying "there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing", or "rules are made to be broken".

So, the purpose of this question is to provide a place where we can list these axioms or "rules" of writing, and also weigh in on whether they are really self-evident truths or utter garbage (or maybe even something in-between).

Please limit each answer to a single "rule" and express your thoughts on it in the answer itself, or in a comment.

The list so far (alphabetically):

  • 1
    this is the kind of info I'm looking for. +1 for a question that resulted in very useful answers
    – slashmais
    Commented Dec 13, 2010 at 9:05
  • As William de Worde says in "The Truth": "News all depends. But you'll know it when you see it." The most important skill is to, well, to know it when you see (or rather write) it. To know when it's right to break the "rule"; and when it isn't. And it's actually not even important to know the rules, it's just important to know what works (for the story in question, not in general) Commented Dec 13, 2010 at 14:42
  • 8
    Here's an article in The Guardian where they asked a bunch of writers to list their own sets of rules a la Elmore Leonard.
    – Ethan
    Commented Jan 4, 2011 at 3:41
  • 1
    @Ethan: I really like that article. I have a sudden urge to snip up that list into individual rules, and have them pop up at random while I'm writing (or, rather, when I should be writing). Clever + Helpful == Awesome.
    – Standback
    Commented Mar 14, 2011 at 10:37
  • 3
    Most of these rules are basically saying, this is often done badly, so don't do it at all. Which is really like saying to a guitarist that a B is often played badly so good guitarists don't play it at all. Which is nonsense. Good guitarists learn to play all the chords well. Good writers learn to tell well, and to use adverbs well, and to describe things well and appropriately, and to use the passive voice appropriately.
    – user16226
    Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 18:15

26 Answers 26


Show, Don't Tell

This may very well be the most popular "rule" of writing. It refers to the idea that it's better to "show" an event as a scene, rather than simply "telling" the reader what happened.

In my opinion, this is mostly sound advice:

  • Don't tell us the 5000-year history of your fantasy setting in the prologue. Show it to us throughout the story.
  • Don't tell us the protagonist's girlfriend is beautiful. Show us her flowing black hair, her lips perpetually on the verge of smiling, her brown eyes with those eerie golden flecks.
  • Don't tell us the thief was nervous. Show us how he has to close his eyes and breathe, just to stop his hands from shaking.

On the other hand, sometimes there is information that the reader needs to know to understand the story, but forcing that information into a scene would divert the plot or bore the reader to tears.

  • Don't show us the Senators explaining to each other how the seat of the US government is Washington D.C. They have no reason to tell each other what they already know. Instead, just tell us.
  • Don't show the young wizard taking a tour of the magical staff factory, when he has no business being there. Just tell us that all magical staves are carved from the wood of the whump-whump tree.

More discussion can be found here.

  • 7
    Note however that many very popular authors break this 'rule' left right and center. So it is more of a guideline than a rigid rule.
    – user3010
    Commented Dec 28, 2011 at 17:48
  • 18
    I agree, this answer (Show, Don't Tell) should be at the top. But I think it misses the main point of what this really means. I don't want to criticize this entry too harshly, because I too was very much confused about what this saying (Show, Don't Tell) really means. -> When I'm watching a movie, or reading a book, or listening to someone, I don't ever like to be TOLD how to FEEL about something. It's like seeing an infomercial. It immediately makes me tune out and push it away. Don't TELL me how to feel, SHOW me what's going on, SHOW me how a character is reacting, SHOW me her heart racing.
    – dvanaria
    Commented Jan 7, 2012 at 10:14
  • 4
    Let me make up my own mind about how I feel about what's going on. Let me form my own opinions. Just report what happens (SHOW it to me). Don't tell me how to feel (don't TELL).
    – dvanaria
    Commented Jan 7, 2012 at 10:17
  • 4
    The aesthetic rule underlying “show, don’t tell” is that character and emotion are most effectively revealed by action. (If your best friend tells you that her new boyfriend is a great humanitarian, and then you see him browbeating the waitress in a restaurant, which will make a bigger impression on you?) But for events that are secondary to the main plot line (including, I would say, that 5000-year fantasy history) or when you need to convey information that doesn’t have to develop or reveal character, the decision to show vs. tell should be made on the grounds of pacing. Commented Nov 15, 2013 at 13:29
  • 5
    It's a good general rule, but like almost any rule, if applied mindlessly you can get absurd results. If you tell me, "Bob was a very rude person", that's kind of boring. But if you have scenes where he is rude to everyone he meets, I'll get the message much more effectively. But you don't have to be ridiculous about it. If you want to say that, for example, a certain character is from Britain, it's perfectly okay to just say, "Bob is from Britain". You don't have to give subtle hints about it and beat around the bush.
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 20:48

Give yourself permission to suck.

That's not to say just write bad stuff, but don't stress about the quality of your writing when you are writing it. Stressing about the quality of the work can keep you from writing and even cause writer's block. You have to accept that what you write won't be perfect at first, but you can fix it when you do your edits and rewrites.

  • 11
    this, for me as a novice, seems like very good advice indeed
    – slashmais
    Commented Dec 13, 2010 at 9:02
  • 12
    The NaNoWriMo Creed! This is a great rule, so long as you remember the last part: editing later.
    – sjohnston
    Commented Dec 13, 2010 at 15:48
  • 2
    Agreed, don't shy away from the "shitty first draft".
    – user355
    Commented Dec 14, 2010 at 14:11
  • 3
    @sjohnston: Or write something else later. Some stories are simply too flawed to be worth editing. As long as the writer learns something from them, they're not a waste. Commented Dec 25, 2010 at 15:45
  • 2
    As I always say The secret to great ideas is lots of ideas, and a big trashcan.
    – hildred
    Commented Nov 25, 2013 at 6:26

Cut Adjectives and Adverbs

This "rule" is often stated more forcefully as "remove all adjectives and adverbs," but, like most of these rules, I don't think it should be blindly followed. Sometimes, an adjective or an adverb is the best way to get across exactly what you're trying to say.

The main time to avoid using them is when a stronger noun or verb would get the same point across. This is really just a specific application of a broader rule: never use two words when one will suffice. Some examples:

  • Replace "The huge man loomed over him" with "The giant loomed over him."
  • Replace "John ran quickly" with "John sprinted."

Note, however, that in most of these cases the two-word combination will have slightly different connotations than the single-word replacement. These differences are worth thinking about. Just ask yourself if what you're trying to say is worth that extra word. Think especially hard if you're using more than one adjective or adverb, as these can really stand out to readers as being overly verbose.

So, adjectives and adverbs shouldn't be cut simply on principle, but a good rule of thumb is to look at each one and double-check that it's really worth having.

More discussion here.

  • 6
    You should link to Twain's original rule, like here: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/439/… Commented Dec 13, 2010 at 10:10
  • 6
    I would say that a large number of adjectives and adverbs are a "smell" that often indicates weak nouns and verbs. Strengthen these and the "need" for the crutches magically goes away.
    – kindall
    Commented Dec 22, 2010 at 19:01
  • 2
    This ties in with "show, don't tell". It's far too easy to use adjectives to avoid the sorts of details that can bring a scene to life. sjohnston's second two "don't"s refer to using adjectives ("beautiful" and "nervous") to substitute for concrete details the reader can use to see what's happening. Commented Dec 25, 2010 at 15:45
  • +1 for 'don't cut them out on principle'. If great novelists have used them, it's because they are useful; you just need to know how and why to use them. Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 13:54

Write, Don't Edit!

The most important rule of all. Everything else is secondary. Even "Show, don't tell".

It is the editor in your head you have to fight. He is nagging you: "You can't do that! What garbage have you written here? Are you serious? You will never be a good writer if you keep doing scribbling this nonsense!"

Well, you can do, you are serious and you scribble all the "nonsense" you like. You have to! Every idea that flashes through your head, write it down. Kick out your editor, kick him hard. The truth is, that more than 90% is garbage, what you are writing. But you will never write down the 10% which are really brilliant if you listen to your editor.

Have you ever started to write a letter or a paragraph of your book, found a spelling error, a grammar error, and stopped writing? Have corrected the error, thought about how you can formulate that better? And after you let your editor interrupt yourself, have you tried to finish your paragraph and did not know, what the hell you wanted to write? It was all gone. You were sitting there for twenty more minutes to make something up, when you knew what you wanted to write, when you started. But you listened to the bastard in your head, the editor, and now it's all gone. Silence him! Write, don't edit. You have plenty of time editing, when everything is written down.

  • 2
    One of the best bits I ever wrote (sadly, lost, and I'm not sure I can (ever) recreate it) was, well, just written down as fast as I could. It just "flowed". Commented Dec 13, 2010 at 14:50
  • What a pity, @jae. But that's exactly how it works. If you can silence the editor, you will get into this flow more frequently. Commented Dec 13, 2010 at 18:43
  • But, if your editor is well-behaved, he won't stop you from writing. My editor actually stops me from writing impulsive, garbage scenes, and helps me to find the right words to capture that exact feeling. Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 13:57
  • 1
    When I write letters or essays or something, I can write through them and edit them later. But when it's a goddamn book, I end up editing and not finishing the book or even getting that far. My OCD makes me want to fix things, "so that it'll be easier to remember later." And what I write is usually actually pretty good (sometimes its the ultimate trash), and then I read it more and more until I think it's terrible, or I just don't feel anymore energy. So this rule is very important! In the next book I am about to write, I'm going to just write, not edit. I'm going to silence my OCD!(AKA editor Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 4:06

Stay off the Internet when you're writing.

It's no timeworn tidbit, but I'll venture it's axiomatic.

A timely example:

Ten minutes ago I was primed to cap off a chapter. Now here I am, chapter-capless, browsing and clicking and typing and web-clipping, pasting notes that will make great endings or even greater stored kilobytes I'll never again ask my CPU to recall. All because I took a moment's peek into the web to see if Liu Xiaobo is trending this morning. Same goes for You, about to comment on what I posted: If this is your dedicated writing time, go away. Get offline. Online's wonderful and time-pilfering diversions will still be here when we return during less valuable hours-- such as while we set about our day jobs.

  • 34
    For some of us addicts, it's just "Stay off Stack Exchange when you're writing".
    – sjohnston
    Commented Dec 10, 2010 at 15:59
  • 2
    When a coffee shop asks you "Would you like a code for the free WiFi?", don't tempt it.
    – granth
    Commented Feb 7, 2011 at 4:15
  • 3
    I think it's quite helpful to listen to songs that fit the atmosphere of your novel (in Grooveshark) or to check some pictures of something you are describing (Google Images).
    – wyc
    Commented Apr 19, 2011 at 14:38
  • 2
    Ha, ha. Yes. I wish there was some way to turn my PC into a digital typewriter sometimes.
    – JW.
    Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 19:45
  • 2
    I discovered this delightful SE a few weeks ago when I had a question about my book, and I've spent about 10x more time writing answers here than writing my own work. I might have to cut myself off.
    – wordsworth
    Commented Aug 6, 2019 at 23:16

You have to read, and read all the time.

There are no iron laws of writing. I'm sure that if I told you that it was impossible to do good writing without reading much, someone could find a handful of examples of great writers who barely read.

But for the rest of us normal human beings, writing isn't something that happens in a vacuum. To understand writing you have to see how it's been done before. Even the really bad stuff will teach you something.

So read, and don't just read one thing. Read literature, read genre, read nonfiction, read comic books; read a lot and read a lot of different things.

  • 1
    I can't upvote this enough. Commented Jun 26, 2012 at 22:00
  • 1
    I sometimes recommend to beginning writers to focus on books they've read and disliked -- and try to figure out exactly what it was that they hated about them.
    – lea
    Commented Jul 13, 2014 at 6:25
  • This is the answer to so many questions on this site. (In other words, when someone asks how to write something it looks to me like they haven't been reading enough.) Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 13:58

The list so far (alphabetically):

  • 1
    As this is a list question and there is no "right" answer, per se, I'm accepting this one, to serve as a table of contents.
    – sjohnston
    Commented Dec 22, 2010 at 17:29
  • 9
    since you're the author of both question and this answer, it doesn't get "pinned" to the top ahd hardly serves as a table of contents. For example, I had just stumbled upon it after having read all the more upvoted answers. Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 8:17
  • 4
    Several times I've seen the TOC placed in the question. This might be useful here. Commented Mar 2, 2017 at 8:21

Writing is Rewriting

You've completed your first draft. Congratulations! Next step is to send it to an agent or a publisher, right?

Not quite yet. Especially if you are relatively new to the writing game, you will spend a lot more time revising your manuscript than you did writing the first draft. More than you think it needs now. More than you think anyone in history has ever spent. Not to sound discouraging, but you will likely need to revise it multiple times before it is saleable, and you will probably need to take breaks in between. (These can be spent working on other projects.)

With experience, you will need fewer rewrites, and less input from others on what needs to be changed to make your manuscript acceptable to a publisher. Even so, the number of writers who can sell their first drafts (or even their early drafts) is minuscule. The most successful writers still make glaring continuity errors, suffer from style inconsistencies from one part of the novel to another, have characters with unbelievable motivations, and so on, and publishers will insist that these be corrected. Some seasoned pros even have trouble with basics like grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

My sister, who has published a few romance novels, has been heard to say, upon finishing the first draft of one of her novels, "now the real work begins."


Don’t go into great detail describing places and things

This is one of Elmore Leonard's "Ten Rules." I selected it from the list almost at random -- all ten are worth heeding. I love it because it's so counterintuitive -- you want to add color and detail to your story, right? No, you don't. You want to add story to your story, and just enough descriptive detail to bring it to life, which is generally a lot less than you would think. One brilliantly-chosen detail is worth half a page of description, no matter how beautifully it was written.

  • 3
    This is a hard one to strike the right balance on. I write speculative fiction, where it is especially challenging to minimize this sort of description, as you're often describing things that don't have obvious real-world analogues.
    – sjohnston
    Commented Dec 14, 2010 at 0:49
  • 19
    I think Tolkien would be down voting this if he were still with us. Commented Dec 14, 2010 at 2:46
  • 14
    Yes, Tolkien did favor extremely long descriptive and expository passages. And of course that's a perfectly legitimate approach, especially with fantasy literature. But unless you're really brilliant at it, I think you're better off following the Elmore Leonard model. And even Tolkien is a pretty tough slog to get through in some places.
    – Ethan
    Commented Dec 16, 2010 at 2:15
  • 6
    One example of a "telling detail" that has always stuck with me (it's probably from one of the Writer's Digest how-to books) is describing a shabby motel room by describing the Texas-shaped water stain under the window-mounted air conditioner.
    – kindall
    Commented Dec 22, 2010 at 19:02
  • 2
    If you want to tell stories like Elmore Leonard, then yes, it's a good rule. But if you write something else... it may not fit. Oh, and the link appears to be dead. Commented Jun 26, 2012 at 21:40

I like Elmore Leonard's 10 rules:

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

  • 2
    Never say "never" is what I say. Empathically. (But #4 I like) Commented Jun 26, 2012 at 21:42
  • 3
    #3 is highly debatable, I've seen a lot of pros and cons on the subject. #5 is a bit ridiculous, putting a number on a punctuation mark. You use it when you need to use it, no more and no less. Same goes for ellipses, semicolons, dashes and I don't know what else... If you have too many of either, you're doing it wrong. I like #8,9,10 though :)
    – Tannalein
    Commented Nov 30, 2012 at 13:25
  • 2
    Signed up just to comment on this, though it's years later. I disagree - yes, there are many more verbs than the verb "said", but those verbs should not carry the dialogue - they should merely enhance it. The spoken dialogue, along with any character actions, should be strong enough to stand on its own without having to rely on descriptive modifiers, if that makes sense. It's the difference between creating a character from what he says, instead of how he says it.
    – user13273
    Commented Mar 25, 2015 at 6:15
  • 2
    I disagree with number 3. I've read stories where it's "Bob said ... Sally said ... Bob said ... Sally said ... Fred said ..." and it's boring and repetitive. But yes, I understand that the opposite extreme, trying to come up with a million different ways to say "said", quickly becomes obvious and distracting. "Bob said ... Sally replied ... Bob interjected ... Sally whispered ... Fred cautioned ..." etc.
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 21:01
  • 3
    I find that, more often than not, I simply leave "said" out completely. The quotation marks and indentation do wonders for keeping the dialogue going, occasionally enhanced by a brief phrase describing the character's body language before or after the quote.
    – TribeOfOne
    Commented Jan 13, 2018 at 3:06

Know the end before you begin.

Everything has to lead up to the end. The climax is the culmination of everything in the story. By knowing the end, you can include powerful foreshadowing and ensure that you don't go off on useless tangents.

  • 20
    Some writers who prefer to plan less may not know the ending when they write the first draft. It is still possible to go back on subsequent drafts, when the ending is known, to work on foreshadowing and cleanup of tangents. While this can require a lot more drafting, some writers have trouble doing it any other way.
    – sjohnston
    Commented Dec 16, 2010 at 23:24
  • 15
    A good modification to this would be: once you know the ending, fix up the beginning to match.
    – Standback
    Commented Mar 7, 2011 at 9:24
  • 1
    I found out I never know the end before I have the first chapter written. Paint the world and characters, making them original and interesting, then let the story of their life play out in your head. All the foreshadowing is already there, you just didn't know it's foreshadowing while writing it. (If you can do this without writing, good for you...)
    – SF.
    Commented Nov 28, 2012 at 16:31
  • 2
    For the purposes of shorts I tend to start with just a name of a character or a title. I won't know the ending until the story has started to grow out from that point, and that only happens once I start writing. However, for a novel I would say it's important to have an ending in mind because throughout the whole thing the story should be moving towards the ending if it is to be solid rather than directionless.
    – CLockeWork
    Commented May 30, 2013 at 8:16
  • 2
    Isaac Asimov (a well-known sci-fi writer if the name isn't familiar to you) once wrote that when he was writing a story, he always began with a general idea, then came up with an ending, then a beginning, and then worked out how to get from the beginning to the ending.
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 21:03

Use correct grammar and punctuation (and of course, spelling)

Style doesn't mean squat if your manuscript doesn't flow due to incorrect spelling, grammar and punctuation. There's a reason why the "rules" are there to be followed. They work.

I thought of this is after making my own contribution to this question.

  • This is true 99.99% of the time (and that's why it's a good rule). However, some of my favorite books (City of Saints and Madmen, House of Leaves, Fight Club) thoroughly abuse grammar and punctuation. It should be noted, it can be done, even (rarely!) by first-time novelists. However, if you think your writerly voice requires you to mangle language, you better be damn sure of yourself. And even if you mangle language amazingly well, you're still going to take a lot of flak for it.
    – sjohnston
    Commented Dec 14, 2010 at 3:34
  • 3
    Well, I don't have any problem with it if it's done tastefully and doesn't intrude on the reading experience. Tolkien is probably a good example of how someone may "break the rules", but there are people who want to do it for the sake of "trying to be unique" and failing. Commented Dec 14, 2010 at 3:57
  • 5
    Also, you need to be consistent in mangling your English so that the reader can eventually catch on to your rules. (See "A Clockwork Orange.")
    – kindall
    Commented Dec 22, 2010 at 19:17
  • I agree with this, to a point. For instance, there is a book called "The Color Purple." Currently reading it. Well, from what I've seen, the writing is just so bad. Half the time, a lot of readers have to reread it (sometimes a couple times) just so that they can get somewhat of an idea of what's going on. I understood it fine enough, but it was terrible. I didn't want to continue reading it. The bad grammar (some would have worked, because the narrator was supposed to be illiterate, but the point the author reached was disgusting) pulled away from the book and message. Also, it was sexist. Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 16:02

Write What You Know

This is one of those rules that I think is most often misinterpreted. Many aspiring writers and advisors take it to mean 'write only about your personal life experiences and not using your imagination at all'.

Realistically though a writer has to move beyond the strictly autobiographical and create fiction with their imagination. So how to combine the two?

A better understanding is to realise that what you know is emotions, relationships, motivations, describing people and places, tragedy, comedy, and all the many other things that make up the basics of a novel: characters, plot, humour, and drama.

In short, write about what you know: life

  • 1
    Taken too literally, this would preclude most science fiction, as most writers have never been to another planet or travelled in time. :-)
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 21:05
  • 2
    This should be: Write what you want to know. (Then do your research.) Commented Sep 8, 2015 at 19:19
  • Maybe a better interpretation would be: Write what you're informed about. If you do a bunch of research about something, you KNOW a lot about it even if it's not "life experience".
    – Abs
    Commented May 14, 2016 at 16:24
  • A teacher of mine rewrote this rule as "Write what you want to know." Then research your topic. Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 14:13
  • @KenMohnkern, then fantasy is still not meant to exist.
    – rus9384
    Commented Sep 12, 2018 at 21:58

How to Write Good

The first set of rules was written by Frank L. Visco and originally published in the June 1986 issue of Writers' digest. The second set of rules is derived from William Safire's Rules for Writers.

  1. Avoid alliteration. Always.
  2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
  3. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They're old hat.)
  4. Employ the vernacular.
  5. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
  6. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
  7. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
  8. Contractions aren't necessary.
  9. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
  10. One should never generalize.
  11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."
  12. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
  13. Don't be redundant; don't more use words than necessary; it's highly superfluous.
  14. Profanity sucks.
  15. Be more or less specific.
  16. Understatement is always best.
  17. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
  18. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
  19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
  20. The passive voice is to be avoided.
  21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
  22. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
  23. Who needs rhetorical questions?
  24. While a transcendent vocabulary is laudable, one must nevertheless keep incessant surveillance against such loquacious, effusive, voluble verbosity that the calculated objective of communication becomes ensconced in obscurity.
  25. In a sentence, the nouns has to match the verbs.
  26. Don't use no double negatives.
  27. In writing, few things are, so to speak, more infuriating, than, say, commas, at least when there are too many of them, or when they should be, say, semicolons.
  28. Proofread your work, so you don't leave some out or forget to finish
  29. Run-on sentences are really bad because the reader saturates and what you really should be doing is using commas and semicolons and even periods to break the sentence up into more digestible chunks.
  30. To have been using excessively complex verb constructions, is to have been bopping the literary baloney.
  31. A friend I spoken with recently told me he been forgetting his helper verbs.
  • 3
    -- Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do. -- About sentence fragments. -- Vague analogies are as bas as, like, whatever.
    – Jay
    Commented Aug 31, 2015 at 21:09
  • 1
    What I don't like about this list is that it mixes so many different things: Rules of correct English (for example, rule 25), rules of good-style English (for example, rule 8), rules that can be applied regardless of language (for example, rule 13), up to even being about the process of writing (rule 28). It wouldn't be so bad if they were at least grouped by topic. When writing in German, it's a good idea to follow rule 13, while rule 7 doesn't even make sense. When writing scientific articles, violating rule 9 may even be mandatory (replacing “Bremsstrahlung” by anything else is just wrong).
    – celtschk
    Commented Sep 13, 2018 at 15:03

You must learn to walk before you can run

The most important rule is, first to learn to write according to the rules. When you master that, you can break them to get better results. But, like in anything where mastering a topic is hard, breaking the rules without understanding them will get really ugly. For true beauty, following the rules however does not suffice.

  • 3
    I prefer the quote from Iron Man (the movie): Sometimes you have to run, before you can walk. Case in point: others always told me that in order to write your own songs, you first have to cover other people's songs. For... how long? They didn't say. And they were wrong. For me, at least. Commented Jun 26, 2012 at 22:01
  • 1
    I think the real rule you're hinting at here is that "In order to break the rules, you need to know the rules" or something similar.
    – Erk
    Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 9:28
  • "Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist."
    – Tom
    Commented Jul 15, 2022 at 1:34

"Said" is All You Need to Say

My favorite writing teacher, way back in the day, told me--rightly--that it is very rarely necessary to use more than the word "said" when writing dialogue, particularly using adverbs.

Almost every time I find myself wanting to use constructions like, "He said excitedly," or the like, I realize I'm better off just saying "said." Part of the reason this happens so much is that, as writers, we are acutely aware of each word. But readers don't notice the repetition of the verb and the adverb rarely conveys enough to be meaningful anyway.

  • 5
    Along with this rule is "Make it clear who is talking". Some authors seem offended that they need to say he said, she said all over the place but I've ready plenty of books where I lost track of who was talking and had to stop reading and analyze the dialog to get it straightened out. In my writing, I find reading out loud is a really good way to determine if I have enough markers to make it clear. Commented Sep 1, 2015 at 22:31

Write in the Active Voice

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned active vs. passive voice (for a good discussion, see this Q&A. Like many "rules," there are various reasons to decide otherwise, but in general the active voice is stronger than the passive.

  • 2
    Can you elaborate on this in your answer a bit more?
    – Abs
    Commented May 14, 2016 at 16:26
  • What's the different between the active and passive voice? Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 16:17
  • @AcidKritana Click on the link in the answer that says "this Q&A" :) Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 23:34
  • @DM_with_secrets Oh, thanks. Commented Jun 25, 2020 at 23:34

Break The Rules

Most of the rules here already note that exceptions should always be made, and You must learn to walk before you can run is generally good advice.

However, these rules apply mostly to the act of writing itself. There are another set of rules in writing, those of genre. Some of the best creative writing hinges on breaking moulds. An excellent example is William Gibson's Neuromancer. Gibson is quoted in an interview as saying:

I had a sense of what the expectations of the SF industry were in terms of product, but I hated that product and felt such a genuine sense of disgust that I consciously decided to reverse expectations, not give publishers or readers what they wanted.

This example is particularly nice because it also breaks the walk-before-running rule: Neuromancer was Gibson's first attempt at a novel.


Kill your darlings

The idea is that the mind is able to think "ingenious" about any old idea, and that the truth of that assessment can only be tested by trying the idea in reality.

Unfortunately sometimes an idea will not work, but the "ingenious tag" persists and we try anything we can to keep our idea in play, even bend reality!

This is when you need to remove that concept, scene, sentence in order to make the story (or any other enterprise) work.

One way to implement this is to keep a separate file (the "Darling file") where you move all your darling scenes, sentences, and concepts. That way you haven't really killed your darlings permanently dead as much as removed them "for later use" (You'll probably get back to that file in a couple of years and realize they truly were darlings and they truly did not belong in your story...)

This, of course is a rule that can be broken. An example is the author John Ajvide Lindqvist ("Let the Right One in"), who has claimed he never kills his darlings.


Value a "fresh eyes" point of view on your material

This is a set of tips and techniques to try to come at your material with fresh eyes (especially after the first draft).

Set the first draft aside for a few months

When you have finished the first draft, set it aside for a few months (2-3) before you read it again.

The idea is to come at the material with somewhat fresh eyes (something that is very hard when you're the writer). It also helps to let go of it a bit before going into editing so you have a more objective view of your text.

Work with beta readers and a critique group

The beta reader usually falls into two categories (and optionally you have access to both):

  1. Readers from your target group that will be able to tell you if the story "works," if it was "engaging," and if they "liked it"
  2. Other writers, for instance in a critique group, that will also be able to talk about the craftsmanship of your writing. And, more importantly, might be able to not just say what doesn't work, but also offer advice on how to fix it.

The most important aspect of a beta reader is that they have not seen your text before and will be able to talk about it more or less objectively.


Cut 10% of your first draft in editing

This tip is from Stephen King's memoir "On Writing." He got the tip as a comment in one of his rejection letters.

The idea is that the language of your first draft is going to be flowery and full of superfluous words.

Cutting 10% of those words will tighten your prose.

King includes an example of how he edited the first draft of "1408," and rather than removing whole blocks of text or whole sentences, he had cut a word here and a couple of words there.

In my interpretation, this rule should be applied to the scenes you decide to keep in the text, rather than removing whole scenes to remove 10% of the text as a whole.

Finish the first draft, only then edit it

Finish your first draft and only once you've done that, go on to edit it.

It's easy to feel a need to edit while writing, and it may even be a valid need from time to time (make a note in the margin, a separate document, or similar).

This feeling can also be your inner critic wanting you to do better, or it could come from doubt that the story is good enough.

You will most likely not know where the story will end up until you've finished the first draft (even if you're a crazy detailed outliner), so, instead of stopping to do lots of edits while you should be writing, push through and finish the draft.

Then put it aside (See "Value a fresh eyes point of view on your material") and only then start editing it.

You may realize some, or all of your notes were wrong. You just didn't know, when you wrote them, what you know now when you've finished the draft.

This advice fits some writers, other writers actually do edit as they go. I think the best reason to push through to the end is if you feel that your work isn't good enough, or the section you want to edit isn't.

However, don't be surprised if you think you're really smart and know exactly what you're doing just to realize once you've finished the first draft (including lots of clever revision) that you've edited the thing to pieces...



When you are excited in what about you are writing, you have a good chance that your reader will be excited too.

Develop the beginning. Develop the story. Develop the ending.

Everything you write is in other words what your feel. If you feel bored, your words and writing will be the same, if you feel yourself in the story you can make impossible things.

Develop by mass writing. The more you write, the more you can be better at it.


Write Daily.

Never let a day pass without writing something. Even if you have no ideas or mood to write just fill a page with whatever comes to mind. It doesn't matter if it is of garbage quality, just keep writing.

Many times consistency beats creativity. Also writing without any expectation increases your creativity.


I would say,

  • First write whatever is in your mind.
  • Organize it.
  • Read it as a reader and see whats lacking and what would the reader be thinking while reading the article. Following these rules would help you make your point clearer to the readers.

Also, one good rule I know about life and writing is,

Always make improvements. When you come across something better, improve it. Make corrections in the previous articles and keep doing it. It would help you learn.


I was told "Normally I tell people to never use the word conclusion in the conclusion, but leave it." If you hear something similar, you did it right.


Give yourself inspiration.

Now, I already gave an answer on the question "I can't write without an inspiration" that explained why you must give yourself inspiration.

But I'll write it here.

Now, of course I'm going to rewrite it, but this is what I mean by "Give youyrself inspiration":

Many writers face writer's block (including me). A large portion of writers tend to think that inspiration just comes.

I'm here to tell you that it doesn't.

I am a very creative person. I have a lot of story ideas. But they don't just come from nowhere. I have to make myself that way.

Here's how you can do it:

  1. Don't wait for inspiration. Unless if you are one of the few blessed, it's not coming.

  2. Read books. Not only would this improve your reading skills, it will also improve your writing and creativity. You can gain ideas from books, such as a plot twist, a character trait, or the beginning of a story line. Or other ideas. It can also help you to just plan out your stories better as well.

  3. Fantasize. (And no, not sexually; unless if it is that kind of book) What I mean is just roleplay. For example, you imagine that you are an elf, travelling with a human knight to save a kingdom or something, and you come across orcs, giants, sea monsters, etc. You might not use all of your fantasies, but it can give you inspiration.

  4. Look around for ideas. Such as media, books, movies, etc. You might like the idea of a colony being sent to mars or a parent having to rescue their kids or something.

  5. Write down a bunch of ideas and put them together in a good way. What I used was, "(This is what I sometimes have to do; write down a couple of ideas, then take the parts you like and put them into a story while getting rid of the parts you don't like) Example: I have 3 different stories: a) A girl goes onto a journey to save the race of dwarves from evil elves. b) A father has to travel the world with a phoenix in order to stop a villain in an industrial castle. c) A vulture feeds on the lives of souls, and a boy must go and stop her. Now, here's how I would improve it: I like the idea of a father, and I like the girl too, so maybe it's a father and a daughter. I like the idea of a phoenix companion, but it would seem to fit the boy better. I want the characters to meet, so the boy and phoenix will end up crossing paths with the father and daughter later. I don't like the saving the dwarves, but maybe that can be a separate race? And the vulture could be the villain in the industrial castle that they have to go and stop! (As you can see, I made a story simply by looking at a bunch of different ideas)"

  6. Practice. Just practice whenever you can. You might have to not use a lot of drafts, but perhaps they can be used for parts of another story? This will also help your writing.

  7. Listen to music. I love music. Sometimes, when I'm listening to music, the lyrics or the beat or whatever can just give me an idea for my story or help to improve it. For example, while listening to song "Kill Everyone" by Hollywood Undead, I managed to create the story line of a book. (In it, a wolf goes around killing other wolves, due to her being driven to insanity by their cruelty)

  8. Write. Even if you don't want to. Just force yourself to write something, even if you don't feel like doing it. You'll probably get some good stories this way, or potentially good stories.

All these, and more, can give you inspiration.

It's just important to remember that inspiration most likely won't come your way, and you're going to have to give yourself inspiration.

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