I personally divide Writing Rules into three categories: Obvious, Optional, and Ridiculous. Let us take a look at each one.
Obvious Rules of Writing are those that apply universally, and, I would say, every gifted writer will instinctively follow them. A good example would be past or present tense consistency. Most writers know that if you have began the story in the past tense, that’s how you must write it all the way to the end. You cannot suddenly switch to present tense, or go back and forth any time you like. I entered the room. My friend turns and looks at me. See the problem here? If I entered the room, then my friend turned and looked. Or, I enter the room. My friend turns and looks. It’s either past or present tense and not both. To me, this is obvious.
Another example would be balancing dialogue and description. Any author knows that you shouldn’t go to extremes with either one: books that are “all dialogue” tend to be shallow, and books that are “all description” can be hard to read.
Optional Rules of Writing are those that can be recommended but, in my humble opinion, should not be strictly enforced. Unfortunately, I see them enforced by editors often enough. I’m talking about things like, “You shouldn’t have a flashback so early in the story.” To me, that’s not a rule, that’s an opinion. The opinion of the particular person – the editor. The author may look at their story and agree that, indeed, the flashback is out of place at this point – or they may disagree.
Another example is what is called POV, a very popular issue with many editors. POV stands for Point Of View; simply put, it is through whose eyes we are seeing the story. Usually, you have a leading character whom the reader follows, and the events are described from that character’s point of view. Take a look at the following excerpt:
John went outside. It was warm today, although a little cloudy. He wanted to see how Mary was doing, so he walked to the back yard. The girl was there, just as he thought, sitting with a book under her favorite apple tree.
“Hi,” John said.
Mary looked up. She was pale and thin. “Hello, John.”
“Feeling better today?”
“Yes, thank you.”
John doubted it, but didn’t press her.
The story is being told from John’s perspective. There are no phrases like Mary thought it was nice of him to ask – that would be out of place because we are in John’s head. Now, if John left and the perspective suddenly switched to Mary’s, most editors would tell you that it is wrong. POV must be consistent, they say, at least throughout the chapter. If you want to show Mary’s reaction, do it in the next chapter, and write that whole chapter from her POV.
I don’t have a problem with that. A story can be difficult to follow if POV keeps switching back and forth between different characters. However, I would not carve the “only 1 POV per chapter” rule in stone. There are situations where POV change is justified. There are also situations where a double POV can be beneficial, for example when two characters are talking and we get to see thoughts and hidden motives of both.
On to my favorite part, the Ridiculous Rules of Writing. It this category I include all the stuff modern editors have come up with that would have made classic authors like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters and others unpublishable. Rules like “No Adverbs,” “No Semicolons” or “No Floating Body Parts” (yes, there is such a thing). There are editors who will cross out anything that ends with -ly (happily, angrily, sharply), especially in dialogue, and there are those who will tell you that you cannot write things like, A hand touched his shoulder. What?? A hand just emerged from thin air and touched him?? No, you can’t do that. Change it to He felt someone touch his shoulder.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, forgive me for being a little blunt here, but that’s plain ridiculous. I can’t use adverbs? SAYS WHO?!! I understand that overusing them can result into poor writing, but having adverbs totally banned?? I won’t even go into a discussion here and try to prove that adverbs can enrich the prose, add nuances of emotion, etc., etc. Open any novel by Dickens or Tolstoy, and you’ll see a bunch of those terrible -ly words on any given page. Are you telling me those guys didn’t know how to write?
Unfortunately, many authors today find themselves facing the choice of playing by the rules (including the ridiculous ones) or not playing at all. You won’t get published if you don’t fit the standards. However, I still think that your individuality, your own writing style is worth fighting for. Yes, there are things to learn about writing, and authors should hone their skills and strive to improve their craft. But improvement, to me, has nothing to do with blindly following whatever “The Rules” are today.