Craft,  Discipline,  Uncategorized

How The “There Are No Rules” Rule Can Set You Up For Failure & Mockery

I’m not sure who started the “there are no rules in writing” rule.

It certainly wasn’t an English teacher.

There ARE rules.

Rules for grammar, spelling and punctuation bring order and dignity to our language. There are also rules for storytelling, rules for submissions, rules of common sense, rules of general communication that YOU MUST follow if you want to be taken seriously.

 If you are a writer then your job is to communicate  to your reader.

If you are deliberately being sloppy, apathetic or lazy then the message you’re sending to your reader is “I’m above the rules” or “You’re too stupid” or “Conventions aren’t for geniuses like me.”

In my humble opinion, I’d like to earn credibility, communicate well and set myself up for success.

I also think that if you ignore the rules, then you’re setting yourself up for failure, obscurity and it’s very likely other writers will make fun of you.

How There Are No Rules Can Set You Up For Failure & Mockery
How There Are No Rules Can Set You Up For Failure & Mockery

This is why:

Rules restrict the chaos. Have you ever been in a car accident because someone ran a red light? Traffic rules are there to keep everybody safe. Now, it’s is unlikely that a lack of grammar and spelling rules could send you to the emergency room, but nonetheless, if we didn’t have rules for grammar, spelling and punctuation, we’d have a mess on our hands.

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Rules are like personal hygiene for the written word. You know that guy, that guy, who thinks showering is optional, who believes that toothpaste and deodorant were invented by capitalists who have conspired to convince America about the necessity of their “products.” That guy is not the guy you want to share an elevator with, right?  If you’re a writer, then if you avoid “the rules” it’s like you’re walking around with body odor. Do us all a favor — check your spelling before you leave the house. We will take you far more seriously if you keep your words tidy.

Rules separate the the hacks from the professionals. If you are serious about your writing, and have aspirations to be published, then you should take care to follow not only grammar, punctuation and spelling rules, but also rules in story structure, characterization, plots and genre. Then, if you do that and expect to be noticed by agents, publisher and editors, then follow their rules too!  Pay attention to submission guidelines, write a decent query letter, act professional!  If you really think that your talent is so brilliant that you don’t have to play the game, then you won’t mind the cobwebs in your inbox. Rule followers get in the door. Rule breakers don’t.

A professional is someone who can do his best work when he doesn't feel like it.
A professional is someone who can do his best work when he doesn’t feel like it.

Rules are the first gatekeepers. With all of the millions of books for sale, a reader is far more likely to pick up a polished one than one that thinks “rules are for losers”. You are not e.e.cummings. Yet. Until you earn notoriety and readers, don’t even think about breaking the rules because that’s what you think the cool kids do. The cool kids shine and polish their work because they respect the time and money the readers will invest.

Rules are your friends: without rules, you can’t be a good communicator. The rules are not put there by “the man” to “bring you down”. Whether they are GSP (grammar, spelling, punctuation), storytelling or submissions rules, they are there to enhance your talent, to be your tools in your artistry, and to put your readers at ease. Imagine this blog post without nouns or commas or nice and tidy paragraphs: it would be a hot mess. I chose to follow the rules because I want to engage my readers and make this blog enjoyable.

Rules are not meant to be broken. I’m all for imaginative writing. I love reading a story that’s innovative and creative. There aren’t enough fresh stories around!  But the very best of these new, exciting works are successful not because they broke rules, there are excellent because they used the rules to their advantage. Rule-breaking in the name of creativity or passion is often rebellion and anarchy with a better agent.

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Deliberate rule breakers will not go far in this business. Show me a new writer who says idiotic things like, “there are no rules!” and I’ll show you someone who is going to have a hard time receiving the fact that his thriller is a hot mess, that his characters are not deep enough and his endings are predictable.

Writing is an art. Just like any art, there are conventions and disciplines set up for a reason. Fresh, innovative, creative works are always welcome. Anyone can break a rule and call it “genius”, but true genius comes from those who see rules and works with them.

My suggestion for all you rebels out there who want to be that romantic, passionate, non-conforming writer that shows the world you’ve got what it takes?
 Sit down. Be quiet. Put in your 10,000 hours. Read every craft book you can get your hands on. Write regularly.

And more importantly?

Be Teachable!

Your talent, your art and your readers deserve excellence.


Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.

One Comment

  • Jane Steen

    It’s like people (oddly enough, often middle-aged) who decide they’re not going to use capitals and punctuation for emails, or, worse, write in all caps. Or run their professional life from an email address like They think they’re being trendy but come across as unprofessional and, funnily enough, outdated.

    I got a skype contact request that suggested, ahem, raunchiness, and naturally blocked it. A week later a friend messaged me asking why I hadn’t accepted his skype request. I immediately knew he wasn’t very social media savvy…

    I do know one person who gets away with breaking the rules in her reviews, but it works because a) she’s young and her audience is mostly young and she breaks the rules with exactly the right tone for her audience and b) her reviews are brilliant. But if I tried to imitate her style I’d come over as totally lame.

    The moral of these three examples: some people have style. Most of us don’t, and that’s fine, because there’s a standard of professionalism we can follow that will work for 99.5% of our audience.