Obvious Writing Rules That Aren’t That Obvious

Just because you have a book published does not mean you know everything there is to know about writing. You can always get better.

Since my first novel, I have worked with excellent editors, taken classes from professional authors, attended writer’s conferences, and participated in discussions and panels at conventions. Each one has brought new lessons for me.

And most of these lessons were obvious once I learned them. Each of these came with an “Of course! Why didn’t I see that before!” light bulb attached.

I am now editing a short story collection and have discovered that I am not the only one who was not aware of these obvious rules beforehand … many of the rejected stories were sent back for violating these rules.

So here are my five Obvious Writing Rules that Aren’t That Obvious.snoopy-writing

1. Have a character point of view and don’t change it abruptly. My first two novels were in first person, so that wasn’t an issue, but now that my new novel is in 3rd person, I am paying much more attention to this rule.

Each chapter should be told from a specific character’s point of view. (I imagine the narrator hovering over a specific character and only describing what that character sees, feels, and thinks.) To do otherwise is very jarring to the reader. If you have to switch POV, be sure to make a break somehow to make it clear.

The omnipotent narrator can work, but you’ll find that the story will flow much better by choosing a character for each chapter. And it doesn’t have to be your main character; perhaps this section is told from the point of view of someone meeting your main character, which allows you to better describe your character’s personality quirks and looks (since your main character probably won’t do that).

2. Try not to use words other than “said” and even then, try not to use “said.” And for that matter, steer away from adjectives that describe “said.”

When you use other descriptions (growled, hissed, yelled, screamed, etc.) it can be distracting from the dialog you’re trying to highlight. It should be clear from the dialog.

Better yet, try to avoid “said” whenever possible. Usually, you can indicate who is speaking from the paragraph in other ways.

“Give me that idol!” he screamed angrily.

As opposed to:

His face became red as he pounded his fist on the table. “Give me that idol!”

3. Show, don’t tell! Look at the paragraph above. See how much better the second example is? And it’s obvious who is saying it — you don’t need to add “he said” at the end.

When I’m working on my second draft, I go back and make sure that I am showing, not telling. Maybe it’s my legal training, but I imagine myself cross examining a character:

“He was mad.”

“How do you know that?”

“Well, his face turned red and he pounded his fist on the table.”

4. Trust the reader. You don’t have to spell out your plots completely. The bad guy doesn’t have to detail his evil plan. It should become obvious sooner or later anyway.

Admittedly, I kind of knew this all along. In fact, in my first novel, I even make fun of the “bad guy monologuing” cliche.

But it applies to all parts of your writing. Don’t dumb down the story; the readers will get it. Don’t explain that someone was happy or sad or angry — show it instead and the reader will get it. You don’t have to spell out what’s going on like some bad made-for-TV movie.

5. If you’re skimming over your own work, so will your readers. Leave out the boring parts. You don’t need to describe every detail of the room, or of the main character’s face. The reader will fill that in themselves.

These, then, were the five rules that made me go “Of course!” These are not the only rules for writing, just the ones that hit me recently. There are many other rules that I already knew, and I’m sure there are more I have yet to learn. (And I may come back to visit these in more detail later.)

And, of course, a final disclaimer: There really are no rules in writing. If it works, it works.

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