Your Writing Isn't Broken: A Manifesto Against Writing Rules

One of the best parts of starting Voice & Vessel has been learning about people’s writing journeys and finding kindred spirits to share the writing process. Between that and recent events I’ve attended, I’m noticing common questions pop up, like: 

  • Is it okay to do (insert technique or style here) when I write? For example: Is it okay if I rhyme when I write poetry?
  • I’ve heard I should _____ when I’m getting started. What do you think? For example: I’ve heard I should never lift my pen and write nonstop for as long as I can when I’m getting started, but it’s been hard to do that. What do you think?
  • I feel like I got stuck on ______. Should I start over when I get stuck on something? For example: A duck showed up in my story, and I thought I shouldn’t be writing a story about a duck. Should I have restarted with the prompt?

These questions seem straightforward, but that's part of their seduction. It’s human nature to want to fix things, and questions like this often get heard as: “Something is broken in my writing process. Can you help me fix it?”

The Seduction of Fixing Things
(Except that Your Writing Isn't Broken)

Often, another writer (especially one with a microphone at an event) will be eager to provide an answer. The answer usually comes from a lovely yet conceptual idea of what writing is. And all too often, it sounds more like instruction than it does a conversation.

Recently, I witnessed a new poet ask about rhyming poems. He was told pretty plainly that it’s not a good idea, and then a conversation about the merits of rhyming unfolded. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then. I don’t think the poet was really asking about the merits and pitfalls of rhyming. I know the people who responded meant well, but I think we can dig deeper. I think it starts with hearing the questions differently.

You say, "Broken." I hear, "Permission."

The more people ask me questions about their writing, the less I hear them asking for a set of rules. Instead, I hear them asking for permission to write, to seek out their story, to follow their curiosity. Or worse, I hear their inner critic looking for an excuse to get them to stop writing. I can hear the inner critic rubbing its hands together. “See, I told you rhyming is terrible,” it hisses. “If you're already doing that wrong, why go further?” 

When I was starting out, my poems rhymed. No one cared because I was young, and that's what kids do. Why do we not allow that same freedom to adults who are taking a creative risk? Why do we expect them to skip that and supposedly “get serious” about the craft already? 

Maybe rhyming acts like an open door for some people. We hear it in music, some of us hear it in the cadence of the language we speak or in the way our relatives talk. If that assembly of sounds and language and rhythm isn't somehow a force for exploring craft, I don't know what is.

When people – especially new writers – ask these questions, I think they're asking to see more of the way forward, rather than a rule for how to walk. Imagine you just discovered a love for hiking. You’re planning your first big trip, and you want to go to the Grand Canyon. You meet someone who has done it before, and you share your excitement. And they reply with a list of camping equipment you should have, park hours, GPS coordinates, and a tone that suggests you have so, so much to learn. Would you feel more or less energized to take action after this conversation?  

It’s better to respond to fellow writers
with invitations than with rules.

For those of us deeper into the creative journey, we can choose how we support fellow writers. I’d rather steward what’s possible than point out pitfalls. We’re all in search of our own Grand Canyon, and no one has all the GPS coordinates for writing. 

To me, no matter how experienced you are, the act of writing is basically an admission that you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s something we accept every time we approach the blank page. The page is going to show us something. Even if we’ve outlined a book or come with a big idea, the process will very likely reveal something more. 

Feed the writer, not the inner critic.

When writers ask me these kinds of questions, I try to reply with with practices instead of hard and fast rules. I’m not interested in giving their inner critic any fuel. Rules like “don’t rhyme” or “don’t lift your pen from the page” suggest there is a secret, singular path to writing. There isn’t. The only secret is that the words will show up when you show up. And often you can’t know what they might become in those first moments when they eek out.

Every writer is a learning writer.

When we let ourselves think that writing is a set of rules and templates and instructions, we also let ourselves believe that there are experts and non-experts. Let me be clear: there are grammar rules. There are good practices to strengthen a story. There are savvy, generous writers who are amazing teachers. But to me, that has a lot to do with the polish, revision, and refinement of writing – in other words, the later stages of the process.

If we approach the utterly blank page with those rules and expectations, we will find mountains where there should be doorways. Anne Lamott advocates for shitty first drafts, and she is right on. The first draft should feel like a big sandbox. It’s not a fine-tuned factory line.

Is Your Writing Blocked? How to Tell the Difference
Between a Bad Rule and a Good Practice

How, Not What

A good practice doesn't dictate what the writing should be. A good practice creates the environment or conditions for writing to happen. It's about how the writing gets out, rather than what the writing is.

An Invitation that Knows Its Place

Practices are gifts we give our creative process to invite attention, growth, depth, and exploration. This is a good way to tell whether someone is sharing a practice. Does it feel like an invitation to you? How much does it show up when you're actually writing? If you use it when you sit down to write and then it fades away, out of your top-of-mind awareness, then it’s probably a good practice rather than a bad rule.

Rules have a way of sitting down next to us when we write. They get heard internally as, “you're doing that again. Don't do that. Oh, and don't forget to…” Practices pull out our chair for us and then back off once we're on our way, always available if we need to reset. A yoga teacher might call this finding your breath. Some days you will flow. You'll breathe easy in your work. The writing says breathe, and you do. Other days you'll have to keep returning to the practice, to find your writer-lungs and breathe forward.

It Works for You, You Don't Work for It

Practices can work differently for different people, whereas rules tend to force everyone into the same bucket. A good writing practice is like a good exercise routine. When you find the one that fits you, your body hums. I use the Amherst Writers & Artists Method in my workshops. Anyone who writes with me is writing with its principles and practices, which are supportive, generative, and open-minded. The method may not be for everyone, and that’s okay. 

It asks, "What if?"

Creative constraints are also different than rules. If you're blocked, they can put you in another sandbox to try new things or see your writing from a different angle. Constraints can create opportunity and diversity in your writing. They are a practice that asks, “Oh, what would happen if…?” Rules manage the writing (and your voice), before it even gets out of your head.

Practices to Help Your Writing Get Unruly

Feeling blocked? Want to take your voice back from your inner critic? For the next week or two, try one of the following practices when you settle in to write:

  • Think back to your first impressions of being a writer – maybe when writing first spoke to your curiosity. Make a list of what you thought a “good writer” was back then. Then make a list of what you think a good writer is now. Try to do this from intuition and not think too much. Which traits apply to you as a writer? Which do you still aspire to? Which frustrate you? What writing "ideal" are you ready to let go of?

  • At the start of writing, take a blank sheet and write down the first thing your inner critic tells you. Tell them it’s their one opportunity to instruct you. Write it down, and then rip up whatever they say. Then, on to your shitty first draft. Be proud of every shitty word!

  • Reflect on a day when your writing seemed to flow easily, or on a piece of writing that seemed to emerge without a fight. What were the conditions that day? Where were you writing? What music played? What food or drinks did you have? Are there small rituals or triggers from that time that you could turn into a regular practice for your writing?

  • At the start of writing, choose a word that energizes you at the moment. A word that sparks something in you. Write it down and put it in a spot where you can see it as you write. When you lose focus on the page, pause and say the word out loud a few times. (Deep breaths are also good during these pauses.)

What rules are you ready to leave behind? What’s your favorite writing practice or ritual? I love hearing how other writers face the empty page. Feel free to share your ideas in the comments, on Twitter, or on Facebook. And if you liked this post, might I suggest signing up for my studio letters? Each one has practices, prompts, muses, and more.