Do you Write by the Rules?


The secret of creativity, Natalie Goldberg makes clear in her “Writing Down the Bones”, is to substract rules for writing, not to add them. It’s a process of “undereducation” rather than education. – Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Is it only our greatest writers who are allowed to break the rules of writing? And what exactly are these rules? Mantras such as ‘Show not Tell’ ‘Point of View’ ‘Omniscient Narrator’ or ‘Close Third Person’ seem to abound in 21st century writing guides. I doubt whether the great George Eliot, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and our own Christina Stead had ever heard of these ”rules’. Yet their writing survives to this day, never out of print or out of favour. And of course, whether unconsciously or not, each of these writers were instinctively following many of these techniques. Many, but not all – depending on the fashion and flavour of their times.


The Arch-Critic Looking Stern

In my own writing group, I’ve found the use of  technical criteria for feedback limited my creativity, and constrained my writing voice. It seems to me that intellectualising the writing process is the opposite of that unconscious process which produces the best writing. It’s as if we have to cross a bridge from the so-called ‘right-brain’ which governs creativity, to the ‘left-brain’ which controls planning, logic and reasoning. And that crossing can often be a painful obstacle course. I once exclaimed to my group: ‘Away with your rules! They do my head in!’ Clumsy expressions indeed, which burst out of my mouth unbidden but unstoppable.

Sentences which flow with speed, grace and simplicity look easy to the reader, but experienced writers know it is the hardest writing of all. Like the Zen archer who does not appear to be aiming, yet strikes the bull’s eye every time, the writers untrammelled by rules and regulations, unconcerned with the fashions of the day, are the ones who stay in our minds the longest.


  1. Yes, I write by the rules at this early stage of my creative writing career. Perhaps once I get there, I’ll start breaking some of the rules. Definitely, I’ll keep on trying to show ( authentic dialogue!) rather than tell, as it takes a long while to be able to do that skilfully.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Touché! I must appear over-confident in my aversion to ‘rules’, but the opposite is true: if I try to write by the rules, my work sometimes appears stilted, and I lose heart. Being a Freudian from way back, I believe all creative work comes from the unconscious, and the less information coming from the conscious (rational) mind, especially in the first draft, the better. I truly respect your knowledge and application of these rules. But for me, even in feedback, they can be counter-productive. Each to her own!


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