This blog essay will not sit well with some. The more in love you are with rigidity, the less my chaos is going to sound like sense over madness. I can’t really do much about that. If it gives any comfort, I’m a weirdo, and the things I suggest can’t help being weird.
But they could help you? Maybe?
The harshest thing is: there are no set rules to writing. Maybe that sounds obvious, maybe that sounds blasphemous, but either way it’s true. Every time you see a Top Ten List of Things Writers Shouldn’t Do (the wording might be ruder than that), it’s probably a list of that writer’s pet peeves, either their own or inherited from some writing mentor/teacher of yesteryear. But that zealotry against describing the weather or clothes or adverbs, et cetera, it’s an unanswered prayer for Please make this good, pretty please?
Every element in writing is about balance, and the only way for a writer to figure out their own balance is by writing, and looking over their work, and deciding how to make it better.
A lot of writers create rules for themselves. I can only give best guesses why. The myth that following rules makes you a better writer, so more rules = better writing? Self-Pavlovian conditioning attempts?
New York Times bestselling author Stephen Graham Jones has suggested (paraphrased) that writer rituals are excuses not to write. Maybe not consciously, but yes, I believe him. Can’t write without that special coffee, or that morning routine, maybe even a mourning routine (everyone has their quirks).
The rituals eat at precious time, and the potential conditioning sets a writer up for failure when some or all of those rituals become impossible for one reason or another.
The truth is, you’re going to struggle to find any absolutes in this craft. One writer’s weaknesses are another’s strengths, and vice versa, and if both of those writers struggle with a particular element, there’s another writer who can do it without effort, without forethought. All the Should or Shouldn’t lists in the world can’t replace individuality; only practice and doing the work. We each have instincts, and we each have aspects we need to learn.
For example, I know authors who struggle with structure and breadth of story, but those aspects of writing come to me by instinct. At the same time, I know writers who by nature seem to know how to best chop up their stories once written, whereas by my nature I enjoy tidy packages, chapters that tell the whole of their focus, and I have to step out of my comfort zone to ask, Is that really best? Or if I split it here, would the resulting cliffhanger improve the pacing?
These paragraphs probably sound disparate. They’re not really writing advice, more about dodging the wrong advice, or practices, or ideas, but they all come together in one important element. Yes, a writer needs to understand words and story and the rhythm of prose, on and on, but core to all of that, a writer needs to get a sense of their personality.
You need to know yourself.
Otherwise, how else can you figure out what are your strengths and weaknesses, your instincts and the things you still need to learn? A writer needs to know their own mind. There are no rules within that, which probably makes it some of the scarier writing advice you’re going to get.
But that’s the beauty of writing, too. There’s only one you. You’re the only person with your unique perspective. So you had better understand it when you get down to using it to make your art.