The “Rules” of Writing

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

–William Somerset Maugham

One of the all-time great quotes about writing.  Pure brilliance.  But… are there really three rules for writing a novel?  Are there any rules for writing a novel?  I mean, it’s an art, right?  Does art have rules?


Art has rules.

Art, good art anyway, is a reflection of God’s creation.  God’s creation is governed by natural laws, and so should our art be.  What does that mean though?  Does that mean that there is a perfect work of art?  Is there a perfect novel?

Well… is there a perfect animal?  A perfect type of tree?  A perfect type of dirt or canyon or forest?  God’s creation, once, was perfect.  But was there only one type of perfect anything?  No, there was variance.  There were differences.  But all was “very good.”

The same is true with writing.  There can be two very different novels that are both very good.  Because although there are standards for good novels (they must reflect God’s creation and character) there isn’t one ‘right’ way to write a novel.  Even though there are ‘rules’ for writing a novel (show don’t tell, foreshadow, raise the stakes) they aren’t all rules and can be broken.  But… when?  And why?

Last week I talked about dealing with bad critiques.  We discussed the three step process for deciding whether to accept a critiquer’s advice or not.  Those three steps apply to using writing “rules” as well.

I’m not going to just repeat what I said last week.  Instead, I’d like to address two specific kinds of writing rules, and their quirks.


It’s no secret that grammar isn’t my favorite thing.  (Y’all know this; you read my blog.)  To grammar’s credit though it has easy, plain, clearly laid out rules.  There isn’t any wishy-washiness with grammar.  Yay.  (Oxford comma aside, of course.)

However, when you use grammar in an artistic form like fiction writing, you bring some wishy-washiness into it.  Once you are using grammar in your art, you have options do things.  Cool things.  Like that.  (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

If you are going to break a grammar rule, do it intentionally.  There is a difference between breaking a rule and not knowing it exists.  If you don’t know what Microsoft Word means when it says “Fragment (consider revising)”, you should look it up.  The more you know about grammar, the more you understand about when and where it can be broken.  (And breaking it is so fun!  😀 )


Prose is the inherently artistic part of your writing.  It’s the way you craft your story.  In the broad definition I’m using here, it encapsulates everything from storyboarding to word choice.  The difference between it and grammar is that there are no rules.  There are a lot of opinions, accurate ones too.

But not concrete.

For example, I’m all for adverbs.  (Don’t abuse them, but do use them.)  Others say use only five adverbs per book.  Who is right?  (I am, trust me.)  But in all seriousness, which way is better?  Should you use adverbs or not?

Sometimes the plethora of resources for writers only make things worse.  What advice to you follow?  What advice do you ignore?  And how could you ever get a firm enough grasp of a concept to know when to appropriately break it?  It’s confusing, for sure… but here are a couple of notes to help you filter through the information overload of writer’s resources:

Stick to the genre

We’re supposed to “write what we know”, but we also need to “know what we write”.  What are the tendencies of your genre?  Sci-fi is very different from historical romance, and the rules vary.  Spend time reading your genre, getting to a feel for it.  Once you know how your genre reads and sounds, you’ll have a better idea of what stylistic choices you should make.

Know your publisher

This may be a ways off for you.  (It may not.  YAY!)  But if you’re on the fence about a tough stylistic choice, get to know your publisher.  What would they want you to decide?  Stick with the people who have the money.  😉

Know yourself

Finally, more important than your publisher or your genre’s standards (which sometimes means “clichés”), you need to stick to your guns.  Your voice can sell your novel.  Your readers want to be able to read you in your novel.  They want to read your ‘brand’.  Whether you write fast paced thrillers, slow moving epic fantasy, or unmoving historical romance; whether your publisher likes lots of semicolons or would rather you pull that key off of your keyboard, be sure that you are honest with yourself in your prose.

Seek to improve your own writing.  Don’t try to write like someone else.


Photo: rulers, Dean Hochman, CC BY 2.0

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Raised on C.S. Lewis and matured (to whatever extent) on Tolkien, Brandon Miller is a huge fan of Christian speculative fiction. His favorite stories artfully bend the physical reality to reveal spiritual realities which apply to all realms, kingdoms, districts and solar systems (including our own.)
When not writing fiction Brandon spends his time tending his blog The Woodland Quill, sportsing, or just struggling through that last-year-of-high-school/first-year-of-college which is really neither but is definitely both.

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