Breaking the Rules

Breaking the Rules  by Leslie Watts at


In the last few posts I’ve talked about self-editing: Can authors self-edit? What are some of the troubles we face? Which tools are helpful?

Self-editing is a challenge that raises resistance for many writers. Often, this mental block is rooted in a feeling of overwhelm: rules are everywhere. Grammar and punctuation, story structure and point of view. If that’s not enough, some rules contradict other ones.

Anton Chekhov warns, "One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep."

How do we keep our promises? How can we revise our stories to follow the rules? What if our writing doesn’t obey them and a story needs something different … can we break the rules? Before we decide, let’s break them down.


What are the writing rules?

When you aren’t sure of how to do something, you seek out an authority on the matter. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is on many lists of must-have books for writers and includes these Elementary Principles of Composition to keep your prose tight, precise, and clear.  

  • Choose a suitable design and stick to it.฀
  • Make the paragraph the unit of composition. ฀
  • Use the active voice. ฀
  • Put statements in positive form. ฀
  • Use definite, specific, concrete language. ฀
  • Omit needless words.
  • ฀Avoid a succession of loose sentences. ฀
  • Express coordinate ideas in similar form. ฀
  • Keep related words together. ฀
  • In summaries, keep to one tense. ฀
  • Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

This is a great place to start (my copy with yellowed pages is well-thumbed), though I know it’s sometimes better to use the passive voice (for example, when you don’t want to reveal who is acting).  

If we’re talking about a great set of guidelines for stories, we can look to Elmore Leonard and his ten famous rules for good writing, which you can find in the New York Times.

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" ... he admonished gravely.  
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.  
  6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.  
  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.  
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I re-write it.

Again, it’s hard to argue with any of these rules most of the time. Elaborate dialogue tags distract the reader from the speech, which is the main event in a dialogue sentence. Too many adverbs weigh your prose down, and we often add them when we’ve failed to use strong, specific verbs. Prologues can include a mountain of unnecessary backstory, but they can also be a powerful way to open a book. (We talk about prologues in episode 96 of the podcast.) 

Even Leonard notes at least one exception to this general prohibition, and that helps us get to the bottom of how to apply them.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks . . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that . . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle . . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”
— Elmore Leonard

What is he getting at? Leonard encourages us to avoid things that are difficult to do well. 

Also, it’s tricky to explain how to use regional dialect effectively, even for writers who execute these maneuvers with style. The easiest and safest advice is to encourage writers to follow the rules. But as we find in life, rules have exceptions, don’t work in every case, and won’t help writers who want to experiment, innovate, and tackle challenging techniques. 

Some writers follow the rules without questioning them (akin to the upholders and obligers of Gretchen Rubin’s four tendencies); other writers flout the rules (like Rubin’s rebels). How do you know when it’s best to follow or ignore them for your story? What should you do when it appears that two rules contradict each another?

The key is understanding the rationale for the rule.


How the law breaks the rules

Law school helped me understand how this works. Laws don’t exist for their own sake, but to support the principles of a society. Although legal systems don’t function perfectly, they are based on underlying values that governing bodies find important. Government statutes cover day-to-day circumstances, and principles, found in documents like the US Constitution, are the foundation.

Here’s an example: Certain contracts must be in writing and signed or they are not enforceable. These contracts include those for marriage, the sale of land, and the sale of goods over the amount of $500. The law doesn’t require written contracts for all agreements, but only those deemed especially important. 

The rationale for the rule is that a written and signed contract will prevent, or at least make less likely, false claims for breach of contract. We want people to make contracts; they allow for the smooth flow of commerce. We want contracts to be enforceable. In important contracts, it’s vital to have a written document, in part because it’s hard to prove the elements of an oral contract. 

There are, however, a few exceptions to the rule. For example, if a person admits that a contract was formed or begins performance of an oral contract, then there is evidence that an agreement was made. The point is when the rule supports the rationale, it is applied; when the rule doesn’t, it is laid aside.


Breaking grammar rules: quotation marks

It’s the same in writing. Rules are set up for clarity: we want the reader to understand precisely what we’re trying to convey. But if we can express what’s in our minds and hearts while doing things a bit differently, according to our personal style, then we’ve broken the rule but stayed true to the underlying principle. 

Here’s an example: Quotation marks are a convention to show the reader when someone is speaking. Author Louise Erdrich doesn’t use quotation marks for dialogue in her New York Times Bestseller The Round House. Most authors do; she doesn’t. Here’s an excerpt from that novel.

We’ll get him, I said quickly. I was fearful as I said this, dizzy.
He took his hands away. Yes, he said again. He tapped his watch, bit down on his lip. Now if the police would come. They need to get a statement. They should have been here.
Which police?

Even though Erdrich uses no quotation marks, the dialogue is clear, and we can easily follow it. The principle has been met, though she does it in an unconventional way. Not every reader will like this, but enough of them do (or don’t mind it) to make this book popular with critics and readers.


Breaking grammar rules: telling, not showing

How often have we heard that writers should show, not tell? Drop the explanation and describe details that convey the same meaning. Chekhov noted that, "The broken bottle neck glitters on the dam and the mill wheel casts a black shadow," is better than "It was a moonlit night." And it is—usually. Showing allows readers to inhabit the characters’ senses and experience the story through them. 

But telling is sometimes the better choice when the writer wants to convey the passage of time, increase narrative distance, provide details about the world, or convey motivation. Endless description can become wordy and take up a lot of time. If the detail isn’t vital—perhaps the moon is not the most important element of the scene—sometimes it’s better to cut to the chase. 


How do you break grammar rules and other rules of writing?

You’ll encounter many instances when straying from the rules is perfectly legitimate and the better course. A deeper understanding of the rules allows you to make your writing your own, without undercutting precision and clarity. Understanding why you want to break a rule is important. 

Consider your ideal reader and the other tools I wrote about here as well. If a rule undermines your purpose in writing the story and your ideal reader will have no trouble following you, then you’re in a good position to stray from convention.  

If I were to give you one rule to follow it would be this: don’t blindly follow or disregard solid writing rules (even this one). Revise your writing with intention and attention because then you’ll have the best chance of delivering the spark that inspired you to tell the story. 

Now tell us, where are you rebellious? What are your favorite rules to break? What is the one rule you think no one should break?


Join the Crew

If you liked this post and want more from Writership, join our crew. You’ll receive our newsletter and a free copy of Cast Your Net with Writership, a collection of 25 exercises to inspire your fiction.

Name *
Cast Your Net with Writership: 25 Exercises to Inspire Your Fiction  by Leslie Watts.


Image courtesy of

4 Top Writing & Editing Tools (That Might Surprise You)

4 Top Writing & Editing Tools (That Might Surprise You)  by Leslie Watts at

The right tool can change everything. I remember the first time I used a Pilot Precise V5 pen for writing practice. My words slid onto the page almost effortlessly (at least the mechanical process). I feel the same appreciation for my computer. And the messenger bag I carry everywhere? It’s perfection because it makes all my belongings stay put. 

In this post, I share four practical writing and editing tools you can use right away, no matter where you are in the process. They might surprise you; they aren’t tools in the physical sense, but they fit within Merriam-Webster’s definition: “something that serves as a means to an end: an instrument by which something is effected or accomplished.” These tools will help you write, revise, and even sell or submit your story.

These tools serve as filters to help you make the decisions needed to keep your story on track. They make your efforts more effective and efficient, easier to perform and more consistent. Treat them as your North Star or the values that drive everything you do. Something that’s cool about these filters is that, like a great bit of dialogue in your story, they serve more than one purpose, and I include their bonus functions below. 

My top four writing and editing tools (or filters) are

  1. genre,
  2. purpose,
  3. distillate, and 
  4. ideal reader.

Top Writing Tool # 1: Genre

Your genre is not only the type of story you’re writing, but also a list of ingredients. I know some people cringe when someone talks about structure or conventions; they want to be free to create at will. I agree to a point. Writers should run wild and free and write what they like. 

But if you want to sell to an audience, you must have some way of conveying the experience, themes, conflict, and feelings the reader will encounter. Genre is our culture’s way of communicating what’s inside. 

Even if you can’t name genre conventions or tropes, you probably know them when you see them. Mystery is an easy one: it includes a crime (often murder), a professional or amateur sleuth, and a villain for starters. Mystery subgenre tropes get more specific: A cozy mystery usually has an amateur sleuth, little violence, and the focus is on finding our whodunit. A police procedural has a police officer for a protagonist and the story focuses on the police methods used to discover and catch the villain. 

To explore genres and uncover typical conventions, I suggest reading or watching examples (novels, short stories, movies, and TV shows) and studying them. Two great sources for models are Story by Robert McKee or The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne.

It’s good to check in with your genre and its conventions when you finish each new draft because sometimes our writing wanders away from the objective. During the writing phase, we want to get the words down, and evaluating whether they fit too soon can inhibit the creative process. If you’re still on track, then you can keep your list of conventions handy as questions and further decisions come up. If you have strayed from your genre conventions, then assess which story you want to tell. (That discussion is for another day.)

Clarity begets clarity. The better you know your genre, the clearer you can be about your ideal reader; your book cover, categories, and key words if you’re going indie; and where to submit if you’re going the traditional route.


Top Writing Tool # 2: Purpose

Your purpose is your point. Why are you writing what you write? You could choose from the whole universe, so why this story? What are you trying to achieve? What is it that fascinates you? Another angle of approach: What do you want this story to do for your reader? 

It’s okay if you want fame and fortune and to entertain people. Those may be the first answers to arise. I encourage you to dig deeper, below what you’ve heard other people say to what you don’t realize is within you. (Writing practice is great for this purpose. Start with, Why this story? See the mission below for instructions if you’re unfamiliar with writing practice.)

Your purpose will show you how to chip away at the parts of your rough draft that aren’t essential to the story. Does this scene support the purpose? If you can't make a good case for it, then you should kill that darling. The same is true at the level of sentences and words. It gets pickier and harder to discern there, but when your purpose is clear, it will guide you in most questions. This tool helps you gain the perspective that is so difficult when editing our own work. 

Writing a book takes time and effort. Resistance will come up and make you want to quit. Your purpose will help you remember why and help you get your butt in the chair. And don’t forget the other writing you do. Find the purpose for your blog posts, letters, and sales copy.


Top Writing Tool # 3: Distillate

The distillate is your story in concentrated form once you boil away all that isn’t its purest expression. You’ll want to include the protagonist and sometimes the villain, the setting, the problem, and what’s at stake (or why the reader should care). 

Do this in twenty to thirty words. Why so few? This is the story stripped to the core to help you make decisions. If it’s too long, it won’t offer laser focus. If you struggle with this, know you’re not alone. I find this process painful. Start with one hundred or five hundred words (or use writing practice described below). Cut the easy things first: adverbs and hesitant words (in order to, for the purpose of, beginning/starting to, there is/was). Then work deeper. 

The distillate works like the purpose, but is the what to your why. Is this scene included within the universe described by your distillate? Is it vital to this specific story? If your answer is no, you know what to do.

You can use this as your elevator pitch, and it’s great practice for finding words that don’t add meaning. 


Top Writing Tool # 4: Ideal Reader

Identifying your ideal reader is something that can chafe a bit for some authors. It’s hard to know who will buy before you start selling. But this tool starts working for you long before then. 

The ideal reader or customer is used in business and marketing (I heard this first from either Seth Godin or Marie Forleo). It’s not new, but it feels counterintuitive. Why narrow it down to one person (or two if you have a male and female version)? It’s tempting to say you hope to appeal to lots of people and create a long list of ideal readers. I understand the urge, but it’s akin to trying to please too many people. You dilute the focus and may not speak to anyone. 

The more you write to one particular person (gender, age, marital status, work, family, city, etc., someone you can see and understand), the more likely you will be specific and consistent in your writing. When your prose resonates with that one person, it’s as if a special sound wave travels to others who may share a single quality with your ideal reader. 

But what if you’re writing for yourself.  I understand that too. But if you want to send your stories into the world to share what’s in your mind and heart, you need to think beyond what writing the book does for you

How do you find your ideal reader?

Some people are lucky. One author I know has a friend she secretly uses as her ideal reader. If that person hasn’t wandered into your life, try the mission below and ask, Who do I envision buying, reading, and enjoying my book? My hunch is that a part of you knows, but you can’t access the identity with your conscious mind. 

How do you use your ideal reader as a filter?

Ask yourself, would my reader understand this word? How does my reader feel about cussing? Can my reader relate to this character? Will my reader be intrigued by this hook? (If you have any doubts about how to answer these questions, think of your ideal reader as a character. How do you know what your protagonist will say, think, and do?)

Knowing who your ideal reader is can tell you how, when, and where to engage.

Please know that although these all seem simple and straightforward, the process could feel quite challenging and might wake the dragon we call resistance. Use consistent practice to overcome. You’re here because you want to write stories, and so am I. Let’s help each other to move steadily onward.


If you listen to the podcast, you know how I feel about editorial missions. I use missions to break big jobs into smaller tasks. And I enjoy thinking of these tasks as little adventures. Here’s a mission to help you use what I shared above. (If you can’t do this now, schedule some time in your calendar.)

If you don’t have all four of the filters described above, create a draft of each or what your missing this week. If you’ve already created your filters, evaluate whether they still work for you and your story. If not, revise them. 

To create or revise your drafts, try writing practice:

  • Set a timer and start with a topic or prompt (my genre’s conventions are, the purpose of my story is, my story is, my ideal reader is).
  • Keep your pen or fingers moving until the timer stops, no matter how ridiculous it sounds or how loud your resistance screams. 
  • You are no judge of what comes out during this time, so no crossing out or deleting. 
  • If you get stuck, repeat your prompt or write I am stuck, and Leslie is a jerk for suggesting this until it clears. (It’s okay, I can take it.)
  • When the time is up, set it aside and give yourself a suitable reward. (Do not skip this step. I get your wanting to move onto another task and achieve something else. I get a dopamine hit from checking off that box too. But take a moment, reflect, and give yourself a high five.)

Later, come back and cut what isn’t helpful. Save anything interesting but off topic on the last page of your notebook or in a separate document. Don’t obsess or let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Your goal is version 1.0 of all four filters, so do the best you can then move on. 

Write or type your working title and four filters on a single piece of paper and make copies. Post a copy where you write and anyplace where distraction from writing lies in wait. Keep a copy with your writing materials as well if you write away from home. 

As you develop a deeper understanding of your filters, revise and repost. 


Join the Crew

If you liked this post and want more from Writership, join our crew. You’ll receive our newsletter and a free copy of Cast Your Net with Writership, a collection of 25 exercises to inspire your fiction.

Name *
Cast Your Net with Writership: 25 Exercises to Inspire Your Fiction    by Leslie Watts

Photo courtesy of Carlos Santos/