What are the Best Rules for Writing?

“Good stories have a quality of authorlessness. The better they are, the more authorless they seem. . . They give a sense of being out there, like facts.” (Janet Malcolm)

I have this quotation in front of me on my writing desk, and every once in a while I read it and ponder once again how I can apply it to my work. Clearly it is meaningful to me (why else would I give it such a place of prominence), but like every writing rule, it’s not going to be helpful to every writer. I cannot imagine Zadie Smith or Lauren Groff, both talented writers, being moved by this rule. Their zingy sentences show imaginations hard at work, whereas the novels of Michael Chabon, another writer I admire, display a kind of genius for creating multi-dimensional characters and plot without so much sentence zing.

There are so many ways of writing a good piece of fiction, and just as many ways of failing to do so. This must be why writers collect rules. At times I’m astounded at some of the rules my colleagues put forth — “Never use parentheses (or semi-colons, or dashes) in fiction” or “Never go into a character’s head or heart” or “Always remind the reader of your character’s physical presence” just to name a few.

WriteGoodNew writers are particularly susceptible to rules, and I always like to warn students away from trying to follow too many. At the same time, rules are there to keep writers alert to possible pitfalls, usually ones that many others have fallen into before them. Rules also serve to keep us attentive. The same teacher who told me never to go into a character’s head or heart (advice I ignore), also taught me to look at each sentence carefully. Really carefully. Like it was under a microscope. Even if you’re writing a 1,000 page epic, every sentence counts.

My rule (or one of them) is to look at writers you admire, writers who write fiction that more or less falls within your wheelhouse, and study how they do what they do. When I was writing short stories, I once took a short story by Rick Bass and re-wrote the first paragraph using my character and my situation and my setting but his sentence structure, just to see how he moved a story along. When he wrote about the weather, I wrote about the weather; when he wrote a facial description, I wrote a facial description. It was illuminating. Of course, I couldn’t use that exercise as my story’s opening (much as I wanted to), but it taught me some interesting techniques. (A revelation: you don’t always need to use connecting sentences to go from one image or action to another. Just make the leap.)

Here’s another note card I have propped up before me: “Character is action. Action is plot.” Paraphrased from David Mamet, who paraphrased from Aristotle.

Virginia Woolf would not abide by that rule.

The answer—my answer—to what are the best rules for writing is this: you must compile your own particular set of rules, and follow them. Study writers you admire, think about craft, pay attention when reading to what you enjoy and what you don’t. Think about books. Think about writing. And when you write, follow your rules.

As it turns out, following your own rules is basically called style.

What rules do you follow? Which do you ignore?

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Martha Conway’s new novel, Thieving Forest, won the North American Book Award in Historical Fiction and a Silver Medal in Historical Fiction in the Independent Publishers Awards, and her first novel was nominated for an Edgar Award. Her short stories have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Folio, and other journals. A recipient of a California Arts Council Fellowship, she teaches creative writing at Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio and UC Berkeley Extension.