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A Writer’s Guide to Breaking the Rules

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In my early writing days–before I was agented, and long before my debut novel was published–I sought writing advice on every imaginable topic: premise, drafting, writing routine, word choice. I was like a sponge, heeding advice from authors who’d reached the goals I envisioned for myself. I also listened to the guidance laid out by agents and editors: they were the ones I wanted to impress, after all. Surely I should follow their advice “to a T.”

As my writing career lifted off the ground, I gradually began to think for myself and reconsider all those tidbits of advice I’d jotted onto Post-It notes. I realized that some conventional writing “rules” didn’t work for my style and narrative voice. Other rules, I considered downright impractical. 

All writing advice, I ultimately decided, should be taken with a grain of salt. Writing is art, and art doesn’t mix with rules. Take what works for you as the creator, and leave the rest behind.

Below are six conventional writing “rules” I’d encourage writers to think twice about. 

Rule #1 worth breaking: Avoid the passive voice 

Within moments of picking up The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, I scratched my chin: the story was full of passive sentences. (“His tailcoat has been tossed lazily over a velvet armchair…”) I remember thinking, “Morgenstern’s editor let her get away with this?” followed immediately by, “I want to see if I can get away with this.” The fact is, the passive voice is lovely and artistic. It creates a sense of mystery and separation, which was ideal for the magical realm in which The Night Circus takes place.

Morgenstern herself addressed this very topic in a WU interview a decade ago, saying “the passive voice fits stylistically” with the “old fashioned storytelling feel” she sought in the story.

Also worth noting is Morgenstern’s use of the second person POV. It’s rare for a narrator to direct a statement at the reader, but The Night Circus does just that in the early pages of the story: “Now the circus is open. Now you may enter.” It’s beautifully enchanting, an invitation for the reader to fall into the story at that very moment.

Rule #2 worth breaking: Write what you know

Ah, an old favorite. We’ve all been hearing this since the day we first set pen to paper, haven’t we? Well, pardon my expression, but I call BS.

I knew absolutely nothing about poison before writing The Lost Apothecary. I had a foundational interest in herbs, plants, and cooking, but that’s still a long stretch from arsenic, strychnine, and nux vomica. What’s a writer to do? Expand what you know. Take the time to do the research. No one will know the difference, as evidenced by the number of emails I still receive from pharmacists who are impressed with the level of detail throughout The Lost Apothecary.

I shudder to think of the many aspiring authors who’ve tossed aside a solid book idea because this rule makes them believe they don’t know enough. Writers, knowledge can be gained–and imagination does the rest.

Rule #3 worth breaking: Write for the market 

When considering a breakout book premise, a writer needs to break away, quite literally, from the pack. This is accomplished not by writing for the market, but by writing something totally different and untapped. This can be related to a book’s themes, setting, or era, among others. 

One of my favorite examples is Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. How brave of McQuiston to pen an LGBT rom-com about the First Son of the United States and a British prince who’s third in line for the throne. Such a premise hadn’t been done before. It was not only a blockbuster bestseller but a catalyst for countless LGBT rom-coms now on the market.

Rule #4 worth breaking: Show, don’t tell

Craft books love to remind us of this one, but in some instances, detail can be irrelevant or redundant. For instance, telling is preferable to showing when an author needs to signify the passage of time. Take Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea for example: “They had a week’s honeymoon in Buenos Aires, then traveled overland to Asuncion…” In this passage, the honeymoon itself isn’t noteworthy, so much as the fact that the newlyweds traveled extensively during this time. 

Another example is in Nita Prose’s The Maid: “It’s almost the end of my shift. Playing over our first date in my mind has made the day go by quickly and has amplified my anticipation for our date tonight.” Here, the author doesn’t re-hash anything in detail for the reader; we’ve already seen the date unfold, and to share detail here would be redundant. The author merely wants us to know that the character’s workday has wrapped up, and what that character found herself dwelling on that day.

Rule #5 worth breaking: Formulaic narrative structures

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m all about the tried-and-true three-act story structure. In fact, I plot, write and revise my books in thirds. 

That said, there exists a slew of guidance indicating exactly where specific story beats should happen. For instance, some writing guides suggest that the inciting incident needs to be in the first fifty pages, or that the transition from act I to act II needs to occur at the 20% mark of the book. I think it’s important for writers–especially those new to writing fiction–to focus not on such technicalities, but instead to ask themselves: have I captured the reader’s attention early in the book? Is there enough conflict to propel the reader into the middle of the story? 

Forget page numbers and percentages. What matters is that the story engages the reader, who–trust me on this–won’t even notice when you’ve transitioned into the second act of your story.

Rule #6 worth breaking: Don’t use a thesaurus 

Oh, how I despise this rule! I use a thesaurus every day. Every hour, almost. I’ve used a thesaurus several times just while writing this article. (A peek at my recent Google search history: “Synonym slew,” “Synonym advice,” “Synonym minutiae.”)

Some well-established authors advise writers to use the simplest word possible–the word most readily available and quick to come to mind. Admittedly, I understand the sentiment here. No one likes ostentatious prose; it feels highbrow and pretentious. But I don’t think I’m alone when I say that sometimes, my (very tired, very taxed) mind cannot always recall the precise word for which I’m searching. It’s then that the thesaurus is my best friend. 

Another perk? Using a thesaurus has expanded my vocabulary! So, go forth and seek the synonyms. You have my permission.

What other writing “rules” would you add to this list of recommended rule-breaking? What examples (books, essays, etc.) can you suggest in which your favorite authors have broken conventional writing rules?


About Sarah Penner

Sarah Penner is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of The Lost Apothecary (Park Row Books/HarperCollins) which will be translated into more than thirty languages worldwide. A graduate of the University of Kansas, Sarah spent thirteen years in corporate finance and now writes full-time. She and her husband live in St. Petersburg, Florida with their miniature dachshund, Zoe. To learn more, visit SarahPenner.com.

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