This book was inspired by a writing course I took in 2015. As part of one of the assignments, I had to write down every writing rule I’d run across over the nearly fifty years of reading about the craft of writing.
The list was shocking.
Much of the advice actually probably started out with good intentions.
Too often though writers want rules to tell them what they need to do to get published. The result is that a lot of advice got simplified into lists in magazines and online, often as “Don’t” or “Do.”
As a result, the original meaning is lost and writers fill in what they think it is.
At the point where I was when I took that class, I was overwhelmed by all the writing advice. Instead of helping, it twisted up my writing and kept me from getting published.
Yeah. That’s hard to believe from the way experts talk about the rules.
But there is a point where the advice needs to be questioned. Writing is anything but set rules that you can follow and have success. The creative part of writing changes the dynamic where rules don’t matter as long as the story’s good.
So off to bust some writing rules.
Give Yourself Permission to Write Crap
I’m starting with this one because I think it’s a truly destructive rule. You’re probably going, “Wait a minute! How is it destructive?”
It’s a piece of advice that started with good and admirable intentions. What it evolved into is less admirable.
What it actually means
Don’t strive for perfection.
Perfection is the enemy of creativity. It triggers the inner critic, who picks apart every word, every sentence, every paragraph. Nothing will ever suit the inner critic.
When I watch the baking competitions on TV, there is always one baker who declares she is a perfectionist. It’s often said with quite a bit of pride.
Then she makes first contact with the time limitations of the competition. Things get ugly
Perfection keeps her from changing course when something doesn’t work or is too ambitious. Suddenly everything starts falling apart. She scrambles just to finish the cake. It’s not her best work.
For the writer, the inner critic can be a constant nag. There’s something wrong with the first chapter! That sentence is terrible! What were you thinking when you wrote this?
So the rule’s intent is to shut off that really destructive thinking that keeps you from writing.
National Novel Writing Month, which is in November, was meant to break through the perfectionist tendencies. If you write 50K in a month, you don’t have time to let the inner critic take control. It’s a very exhilarating experience because the writing is downright fun!
But then what’s so destructive about the rule?
Busting the Rule
The problem is the word “crap.”
As writers, our stock and trade are the words. This one has a huge emotional impact. It’s usually said when we’re angry or frustrated.
A lot of people come into writing with impostor syndrome. They expect at any moment someone is going to call them out as an impostor. That they’re not really writers.
So when they hear “Give yourself permission to write crap,” they hear something else completely different:
- “My writing is crap.”
- “All first drafts are crap.”
That turns the inner critic on full force. The writer goes into the story not thinking about how bad a writer they are. Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because if the writer thinks the story is crap, they start writing sloppy and get stuck a lot.
The result is that writing the first draft, which should be a fun exploration of the story, becomes a torturous, painful process.
Even the editing process is affected because the story is still not good enough.
Maybe you don’t send it out to a publisher because it’s never going to be good enough.
Or when you get a form rejection, your first reaction is that it must be that comma mistake on page ten.
The worst part of perfectionism is that it’s vague. There’s no checklist or standard you can follow. So you ending up feeling like a failure. The story can never live up to the vague ideal of perfection.
What can I do?
- Never use any negative words like crap or garbage to refer to your writing.
Some are so common that most writers don’t think twice about referring to them. But your stock and trade are those words. Listen for the negativity and kick it to the curb.
- Turn off the perfection voice.
One of the things that I’ve found very useful is writing down what I’m grateful for at the start of the day. It’s a simple thing, and often only one thing, but it does change my mindset. Perfection is never glad for anything.
- Be alert for things that triggers calls for perfection.
Everyone’s going to be different. The inner critic is also likely to change tactics once something no longer works, so keep your eyes peeled.
But this is also a common enough issue that there are plenty of books on the topic. Browse through the library not just in the self-help section but also the business section.
Sometimes being aware of the problem in the first place is enough to get started.
Other “rules” I’m going to bust in August:
- Make Your Character Suffer
- You Must Outline (well, yeah, you knew I have to hit this one)
- Write What You Know