How to Write: Are there rules to good writing?

I like  It’s a strange little website covering geeky stuff that appeals to my inner nerd.  But I just read something in their “writing advice” column that had me gnashing my teeth.   “What it Means When Someone Tries to Tell You THE Rules of Good Writing“.  This is an informal follow-up to a previous article, “10 Writing “Rules” We Wish More Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Would Break”

The ideas behind them both is that hard and fast rules, when applied to the creative process, are more like guidelines.  Essentially, go with whatever works for you, but try to be consistent.  Then they offer an example of an occasion when one of their suggestions actually worked.  At this point I’m reminded of the old bumper sticker; “Just because you’re misunderstood does not make you an artist”.

I appreciate the well intended “accept yourself for who you are” movement.  And I do agree that ironclad laws should not be strictly applied to creative expression.  There is a strong need for individual expression, otherwise “creative” wouldn’t be in the description.  But there’s what works, and what doesn’t.  If your goal is to write for public consumption you need a solid foundation in the mechanics of the written word, along with the construction of longer works.  After you’ve got that down. then start branching out into your own unique style.

What annoys me so much about articles like this is the mixed message it sends out.  Unless a writer is completely delusional, they know when something isn’t working.  It’s the “something” that confuses so many.  They know what they want to say, but how do you get to that point?  According to the self-acceptance movement, you don’t.  You create in whatever manner you see fit, it’s up to the public to accept your genius for what it is.  If they don’t the problem is with them, not you.

Really no.  There is such a thing as bad writing.  And yes, there are some excellent guidelines to follow.  I traditionally recommend “On Writing” by Stephen King as my favorite how-to book.  King is wildly popular with a broad swath of the public – his credit is good.  Also, he offers solid information without making the reader feel like a moron.

Let’s look at examples.  We’ll start with bad.  The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest is an annual contest seeking out the worst writing of the year (in a single sentence).  It’s named after the guy who really did begin his novel with “It was a dark and stormy night”.  Here’s the whole passage, from the novel “Paul Clifford”:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” –Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, 1830

This is classic “purple prose”.  Why say it in one word when fourteen will do?  I can already hear the protests going out – Yes.  It works sometimes.  Two examples off the top of my head are “The Witching Hour” by Anne Rice, and any line written by Quentin Tarantino for a Christoph Waltz character.  But these are devices.  They should not to be used on a regular basis.  Anne uses the device to draw a reader into a dreamy world of magic, where life moves at a different, slower pace.  Intended as a seduction, it works only occasionally.  Most readers will tell you it’s cool for a while, then they start skipping pages (entire pages!) of descriptive passages.  Tarantino, meanwhile, balances the verbose Waltz characters with a taciturn counterpart, King Shultz with Django Freeman, Hans Landa first with Perrier LaPadite, then with Shosanna Dreyfus.

Let’s stay with Stephen King for a great example of an opening sequence. This is the first page of “The Long Walk”.  One of his infamous “Bachman Books”, he wrote under a pen name to see if he could appeal to an audience when they didn’t know who he was.


An old blue Ford pulled into the guarded parking lot that morning, looking like a small, tired dog after a hard run.  One of the guards, an expressionless young man in a khaki uniform and a Sam Browne belt, asked to see the blue plastic ID card.  The boy in the back seat handed it to his mother.  His mother handed it to the guard.  The guard took it to a computer terminal that looked strange and out of place in the rural stillness.  The computer terminal ate the card and flashed this on its screen:




ID NUMBER 49-801-89


The guard punched another button and all of this disappeared, leaving the terminal screen smooth and green and blank again.  He waved them forward.

“Don’t they give the card back?” Mrs. Garraty asked.  “Don’t they–”

“No, Mom,” Garraty said patiently.

“Well, I don’t like it,” she said, pulling forward into an empty space.  She had been saying it ever since they set out in the dark of two in the morning.  She had been moaning it, actually.

“Don’t worry,” he said without hearing himself.  He was occupied with looking and with his own confusion of anticipation and fear.  He was out of the car almost before the engine’s last asthmatic wheeze – a tall, well-built boy wearing a faded army fatigue jacket against the eight o’clock spring chill.

His mother was also tall, but too thin.  Her breasts were almost nonexistent: token nubs.  Her eyes were wandering and unsure, somehow shocked.  Her face was an invalid’s face.  Her iron-colored hair had gone awry under the complication of clips that was supposed to hold it in place.  Her dress hung badly on her body as if she had recently lost a lot of weight.

“Ray,” she said in that whispery conspirator’s voice that he had come to dread.  “Ray, listen–”


King makes the most of his 320 words. His use of simile quickly draws his reader into a fantastical situation, by comparing it to the ordinary.  Description of the objects around them go far to describe both Ray and his mother – her dress hangs off of her, the car is old and in need of repair.  By associating the word “asthmatic ” with the engine he puts in a clever twist.  While it’s possible for rich people to have asthma, it’s typically associated with the poor.  He’s implying not only a broken car but reinforcing an economic assumption about his character.

The guard is given next to no description.  He’s young and has no expression.  He does not judge.  But note Ray’s mother – her panic when he didn’t give the card back.  Her reaction establishes everything we need to know about the soldier.  He is part of the machine they find themselves trapped in.  They don’t attempt to speak to him directly – this telegraphs to the reader there’s no point.  He is AUTHORITY.

What do we know about Ray? It is implied he’s in the back seat because he’s too young to drive.  And yet in two sentences King established that the mother is in need of reassurance, the child must be patient with her.  This tells you a great deal not only about both characters, but about the situation as a whole.

The selection concludes with Ray’s mother whispering frantically to him.  At this point the reader should really want to know more.  Why is she whispering?  Why does he dread it?  What the heck is going on?  Already King is building a cage for his characters, and by extension his readers.  When she hunches in, the conspirator’s voice, it begins to close in.

Good writers are normally voracious readers.  When you see something good, stop.  Go back.  Read it again.  Start taking it apart.  Why did this work for you?  At the same time don’t avoid bad writing.  Seek it out.  Start at a page like The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.  Read over the entries.  Check out the comments.  Why don’t they work?

There may not be ironclad rules for creative expression, but don’t be lulled into the idea that it’s “anything goes”, or even that there are just casual guidelines.  Even Picasso had to learn the basics first.


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