Rules for Writing: Good, Bad & Ugly

Rules for Writing: Good, Bad & UglyRules fist

During my years as an apprentice writer, I’ve encountered many writing rules – things to do and things not to do when producing a piece of writing. In my opinion, some are good, some are bad, and some are downright ugly.

They can come from all over the place: how-to books, creative writing courses, other writers, people’s blogs and other places on the internet. It’s useful to know the provenance of a writing rule, but not essential, in order to use it. What’s crucial, at least for me, is that you have to believe in the rule.

Broken pencil

Unless the reasons behind a writing rule are blindingly obvious, I have trouble taking it seriously, unless a convincing justification is given. All too often, I see rules where this is not the case. A classic example is:

“Never start a chapter with dialogue.”

To this day, I’ve never heard a satisfactory reason given for this. Perhaps it was someone’s personal preference that somehow got amplified into a rule by a Chinese whispers effect.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could create and maintain a list of writing rules, including an indication of their true usefulness. Well, I propose we start one right here. I’ll start it off and you can all chip in and help.


  • They’re not really rules, they’re just guidelines.
  • Rules can be broken, if you know what you’re doing.

List of Rules

Here are a few to get us going…

Rule Description / Justification Rating
Avoid cliches. They’re well-worn and will bore the reader. Good
Avoid adjectives/adverbs. Unnecessary descriptive words slow down the reader and tell them what to think, rather than letting them imagine things for themselves. Good
Don’t start a chapter with dialogue. ? Ugly
Don’t use prologues/epilogues. They can bore the reader with uninteresting back-story, rather than throwing them straight into the action. Bad?
Show, don’t tell. Describe characters, places and things by what they do and what happens, rather than long descriptions. This will increase the narrative pace and keep the reader more interested. Good
Use all senses. Writing with five (or more) senses enriches the reader’s experience. Good
Start a chapter with action. Good for narrative pace. ?
Murder your darlings. Remove pieces of text that do not help the story. Even if the author likes them, the reader may not. Good
Avoid speech tags. They can jar the reader out of dialogue if they are over-used. The word “said” is apparently somewhat invisible. ?

Please help me to complete this table by leaving comments below, or sending me a message What other rules do you know? Are the ones above correct or wrong, in your opinion?

Thanks — Captain Black.