Monday, September 18, 2017

What Are Your Personal Writing Rules?

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

What are personal writing rules?

We all have them, even if we haven’t officially listed them anywhere. I first came across the idea of making a list of my personal writing rules in the June 2017 issue of the Romance Writers Report in an article by Katharine Ashe. Her article was specific to the rules she’s developed for herself as a romance writer, but the concept applies to anyone who has been writing for a bit.

"Personal writing rules" refers to the truths you've learned about you as a writer, the stories you like to tell, and your methodology for making the magic happen. If the word "rule" skeeves you out, think of them as guidelines or truths.

A quick example is something like, "I'm a plotter." When writers make that statement, it's a short way of saying something like, "I have learned that plotting my stories is important to me and the quality of my work."

For many of us, we begin with a rule like, "Writing matters to me. I make time for it." If you're early in your journey, this might be a rule that you repeat to yourself regularly. It might be the only rule you have so far, and that's okay! Depending on your upbringing and current environment, this might be one of the biggest hurdles you ever cross as a writer.

Here are some other examples of writing rules you might have:

"I write every day." This is one that Lydia Howe can claim. That's a practice that has brought her joy and discipline over the years. For other writers, that kind of rule feels like a noose.

"I edit as I write." Many writers, like me, prefer to plow as quickly as they can through the first draft and then spend more time in edits. That doesn't work for Roseanna M. White, however. She learned that she works better if she edits as she goes, regardless of the frequently repeated advice about how valuable bad first drafts are.

"Pretty writing matters to me." Beautiful prose is something that brings joy to Shannon Dittemore, and it influences her writing voice. If she focused just on being efficient with her words, she would lose a lot of what she loves about storytelling.

"My first drafts are private." This is really important to me, and it gives me the freedom to get the story on the page. It's a rule I had to develop so that I could be messy without fear. Nobody sees my manuscripts until I've edited them at least once.

Why bother?

I see several valuable reasons for writing down your rules, and I'm sure there are others.

1. Writing them down creates a good reminder. Same as writing down your goals instead of just storing them in your head. Sometimes we need reminders of what's important to us and who we are. So when you come across a blog post by a know-it-all writing teacher who says the very best way to write a book is to write a bad first draft (which I probably said in the early Go Teen Writers days when I was much more fond of the words "always" and "never") you can shrug it off and say, "Yeah, that's not what I've learned about myself. I've learned I edit as I write, and that's okay."

2. You can see how they serve or contradict your writing goals. When you put your rules side-by-side with your vision of where you want to go with writing, they can provide some great clarity.

Like if one of your goals is to publish your novel next fall, then a rule like, "I write every day" serves that well. If, however, one of your writing rules is, "I write when I feel like writing," you'll see how those contradict each other. Writing when you feel like it is great for joy, but not so great for deadlines.

3. You'll be able to watch yourself evolve. One of my personal writing rules in high school was that I didn't plot. I had tried several times and it just didn't work for me. I was a pantser.

In my early twenties, I took a class from Angela Hunt, a bestselling author who had been a professional for twenty years at that point. She said, "I like to try one new thing with each book I write." I loved her teachable spirit, and I embraced the rule for myself.

That new rule invited me to give plotting another try. With my deeper understanding of story structure, I found that I understood how to plot much better than I had in high school, and that there were some methods that worked for me.

Personal writing rules are meant to be tools to empower us, not chains that keep us from growing or trying new things.

Want to play along? What are some of your personal writing rules?

Next Monday we'll look at our writing goals and rules, and we'll brainstorm ways we can take action on them. I love making lists and dreaming, but if we don't get some actionable items on our calendar, then these exercises aren't very useful!


  1. Wow what a coincidence! I am right in the middle of a series of posts for my new website/blog about my writing journey to date, and the lessons I have learned along the way. Now that I think about it, the two main lessons I've explored can, in fact, be thought of as "writing rules":

    1. BE DISCIPLINED: When writing, jot down all extraneous ideas in a notebook, and resist the urge to incorporate them into the current story. It gets too confusing otherwise.

    2. PLAN BEFORE YOU RIGHT: I can't seem to finish a story unless I know what is going to happen in every scene from start to end. If I don't plan first, I lose focus part way through.

    Interestingly enough, I didn't come up with either of these on my own. They were suggested to me by the facilitator of a writing workshop I attended at age 10 (quite a while ago!), who was kind and insightful enough to write me a letter to address the problems I was having at the time. If anyone is interested, you can read the full letter here:

    1. I should probably add "PROOF READ" to that list, since Rule #2 clearly proves I also mix up my homophones!

    2. Lol, I do that all the time! Your blog is awesome, by the way! :D


    3. Rebecca, that letter is such a sweet gift! I know it won't be too long before you're paying it forward by helping out a young writer who looks up to you!

    4. Thanks guys! I think I'm starting to get the hang of this blogging thing. It was quite terrifying in the beginning, taking my writing from the safety of my bedroom and putting it out there, but I know that it's the best way to help myself grow!

  2. I think some of my "rules" are I write a first draft first. Then I let it sit for a month, though it can be hard to leave an idea for that long. If I don't, I will scrap everything and start over. Then I edit.
    I'll write a second draft with newly edited material and work on getting betas. I already have an Alpha reader.
    That's about it for me. I'll obviously incorporate the things they say I should change if I feel the things need to be changed.

    But, I have yet to reach the beta level of writing. I'm working on that right now. :D

    1. Yes, it definitely takes time to build up readers who you can trust. It's worth getting the right ones!

    2. This is a good one! I used to jump straight in to editing the second I finished the first draft (back when I first thought editing was reading through and correcting spelling mistakes, and nothing more). I forced myself to take 6 weeks off after finishing the first draft of my WIP - it was EXCRUCIATING, but it also gives you some much-needed distance and objectivity. Especially when it comes to cutting stuff out.

  3. I plot and outline. I have a lot of dead-end ideas and confusion, so it's easier to work out my problems and get all my ideas together before I write rather than do extensive rewrites.
    I also have a rule about characters -- all major characters must have at least one big thing that is giving them pain. Whether it be a lie they're telling themselves, physical pain from someone else, or a hard home life, I believe giving characters pain is what makes them genuine and human.
    While I don't write every day, I am getting in the habit of being productive every day with what I call "creative rotations". I take advantage of the 30/30 app and set timers to rotate working on all my projects. Currently, that's: outlining my new book, filling out a character workbook, working on a short story I'm writing, and reading books about the writing craft. Since I have a short attention span, this is my "rule" for getting things done.

    1. Yes. I agree fully that all the characters need pain. After all, if it wasn't for all the pain in the lives of all my favorite characters from TV, movies, books, my own ideas, etc, none of them would be the people they are, for better or worse, and none of them could be nearly as genuine, or special.

    2. Josie, I love that you've found a way to be productive even with a short attention span!

      Also, I think characters having at least one thing giving them pain is a fabulous writing rule.

  4. I agree with trying something new every time. I've hopped over quite a few ideas over the past few years, and with each new idea, I've challenged myself to reach far and experiment with new things.

    Another personal rule of mine is that every story should matter. By that I mean that I've learned to venture deeper into my idea and puzzle out how the story speaks to me. In other words, after many years of confusion, the concept of theme finally clicked for me, and now I intentionally search for and develop it.

    Another little thing I've valued is looking through the eyes of all my major characters, especially the villains. Everyone has a reason, and each of the characters in a story will have differing goals, motivations, views, etc.

    Let's see, yes, discipline, I'm working on that. I've tried to force myself to see one project all the way through. The way I see it, if I constantly hop between drafts and new possibilities, I will never make any actual progress. If I can see my current draft through to the end, I will consider my endeavor a success.

    Additionally, I value accuracy, to the point where it gets rather extreme, so I make sure to do my research. However, I'm creating a new system where I only allot so much time for research, and beyond that, if I'm not sure on something, just leave a note and check it out later!

    Then there is the plotting vs. pantsing 'rule'. When I start a project, I always outline the general plot. Of course, I've generally worked best by having a sort-of outline and pantsing in the details.

    If a new idea comes to me in the middle of a project, part of my new "Stick-to-one-project" mentality is to jot down the basics and stuff it in a drawer for later. I am no longer allowed to venture any deeper into those 'seeds' until it's time to watch them grow into stories.

    And of course, bad first drafts. I absolutely cannot force out a draft that contains good descriptions, dialogue, perfect continuity, and all that jazz. So I give myself permission to slip in and out of detail. Some scenes will contain more description, some will have more dialogue, and some will inevitably contradict each other, and you know what, that's quite alright with me.

    1. Wow...that was quite a lot...Reading through this blog post, I didn't think I had that many writing rules, I suppose I do though. Thanks for the post, I needed that. =)

    2. Gwen, what a lovely and thoughtful response!

      This one in particular spoke to me:

      I've tried to force myself to see one project all the way through. The way I see it, if I constantly hop between drafts and new possibilities, I will never make any actual progress. If I can see my current draft through to the end, I will consider my endeavor a success.

      I'm much better at that now than I once was, but making it to the end of a draft is a huge milestone to reach as a writer.

  5. My writing rules ... let's see.

    1. Know where the story's going and what it's meant to say. I'm a planster writer, and I know that I'm going to have themes show up that I didn't foresee, and the ending might be little like my intention, but if I don't know where I'm going, I'm not going to get there.

    2. Create, edit, or absorb every day. Sometimes I manage all three, but usually not. The point is, I need to do something productive towards my writing.

    3. For my novels - never edit a first draft. Always rewrite. My first draft is to discover the story, the second is to write it the way it needs to be written.

    4. Always be open to a new idea. My books have been deepened by a plot bunny so many times, it ain't even funny. Now, you have to handle the bunnies properly, because they can run off with you, but I'm generally good friends with mine. My multiverse is big enough for all of them.

  6. This post inspired me and I just came up with five new rules:

    1. Writing matters to me and I make time for it, even when it seems like there are more "pressing" things I could be doing.

    2. God is at the center of my writing and every story should communicate truth in some way.

    3. Do not attempt to write every day, as that will just lead to burnout and guilt; simply try to write on a regular basis, whenever the truly urgent tasks are out of the way.

    4. Always plan before I write or revise.

    5. Try new techniques and strategies often, at least for now, as I grow into my own unique process.

  7. One writing rule I'm working on right now is that I won't compare my work to someone else's. What matters more is that I write to the best of my ability.

    The other big one I'm working on implementing is to make writing a priority. I can't always write every day, but I CAN write before I get on Facebook or waste time playing Tetris.

  8. I've had to think about this really hard. I don't know if I have rules but maybe habits? I've journaled every day since I was 11.. usually before I go to sleep. I try to write for around an hour every morning on my current WIP whatever it is before I go to work every morning...but devotions come first. And sometimes I need sleep or to go to work earlier... so sometimes I don't get the hour. Or I try for 1k. Or write later in the day. Editing is nice... I keep my blog scheduled at least several weeks ahead so I'm not always stressing to post on time. I like to do things earlier than last minute... beta reading doesn't always happen like that... though I do send feedback out right away. When I read a book I either right down my thoughts in a notebook or on goodreads right away. I edit as I write... I like to do a couple drafts still before sending it out to friends. And I have a couple friends I send my stuff to before others ;p I think that's all I do?