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I don’t know the rules

I want to write a book but

I want to write a book but

Over the last few days I’ve been writing a series of posts called ‘I want to write a book but’. You can see a list of all these posts here. Today I’m talking about a topic I’ve written about before – writing rules – and it’s a contentious one. If you’d like the link to my longer post on this topic, scroll down.

No one knows what they are

Apparently Somerset Maugham said “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” (If you find the source of this quotation, please let me know in the comments and I’ll add it! Thank you.)

What do you know well?

This goes for all sorts of rules and tips. Think about something you know really well. It doesn’t matter what it is: playing the piano, computer programming, social media marketing, teaching in a primary school, cooking a fantastic curry, selling a house, knitting, fixing a leaky tap. Feel free to add several of your own here.

Now think of the rules and tips associated with it. Jot them down and take a good look at them. Do they get to the root of the problem? Maybe. Do they work in all scenarios? Unlikely. Do they contain all the advice you’re going to need to be good at that particular skill set? Definitely not.

Understanding when to apply a rule

So when we’re beginners at something it’s easy to think that a rule or tip is really going to help us in all circumstances, but – because we’re just starting out – we lack the tacit and contextual knowledge to know which situations this rule or tip applies to, when it works and when it definitely doesn’t.

When we’re experienced or have a lot of knowledge about something – and this applies to absolutely every adult whether it’s formal experience / knowledge or not – we realise that we need tacit and contextual understanding in order to know when to apply particular techniques, ideas or ‘rules.’ In fact, reaching this level is key to becoming an expert at something.

Scowling at children

Here’s a teaching tip that was bandied about when I did my teacher training: Don’t smile before Christmas. Would it work if you don’t have a teaching qualification / experience? Very, very unlikely. Would it work if you do have a teaching qualification / experience? It depends. The thing is, I have to interpret this rule and use it with wisdom and balance. Is scowling at children from September to December a good idea? No. Is being strict with the rules of the classroom important if you want to establish a structure and routine? Sometimes.

Get your salt out

So when you come across a writing rule, take it with a pinch of salt. How do you know whether it’s going to work? Or rather, how do you know in which circumstances it will work, and in which it will definitely not work? You can experiment with it, in the spirit of trial and error, or you can read advice from writers you admire, and (this is crucial) read examples of their work so you can see both the ‘rule’ itself and the breaking of that rule in action.

Want more?

Here’s a longer post I wrote for New Writing South on the so-called ‘rules’ of good writing¬†and I’ve created a free course for them called¬†Taking Your Fiction Further, where I go through these ‘writing rules’ in more detail.

More soon. Until then, happy writing,


P.S. Here’s the next post in this series: I want to write a book but I’m having trouble focusing.

P.P.S. You might also like these posts: ‘Here’s what’s wrong with writing tips‘ and ‘A Man with a Gun.’

P.P.P.S. I’ve written a book for beginner writers. You can find out more here.



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