The Only Two Writing Rules You’ll Ever Need

    writing rules

    Are there such things as ‘writing rules’?

    If so, what one – or two – writing rules apply to every writer?

    Some background. In my first creative writing class, the professor made something clear: there were no writing rules. He explained that every writer writes for different reasons, for a different audience.

    What one rule could apply to every writer?

    The professor then proceeded to ask us the same questions as we read our stories in class, “What do you mean here?” “Why did you use this word?” “Why did you write it this way?”

    From these Socratic interrogations, I divined the one rule of writing. “Intend every word you write.” Know the meaning and intention of every word you write. Know why you used a comma instead of a period, active voice over passive voice, this word over that word, exposition over narration. You and your intentions govern your writing. There are millions of mediums and styles to write in, but this rule unites them all. Every other rule is really a tip.

    But like I said earlier, this rule isn’t enough.

    As I’m wont to do, I’ve been ron writing and style, and recently I came across Ben Yagoda’s The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing. As I was reading it, I realized, I’m missing half of the equation. In his book, Yagoda introduces the concept of a “Pretty Good Reader”, his idealization of the audience, the person he writes for.

    It got me to thinking. My “Golden Rule” doesn’t address the audience. The writer alone doesn’t determine what is on the page; your audience also gets a say. So, my second rule of writing:

    Write for you reader(s).

    The two rules are symbiotic. Like Moray eels and Goby Fish. Or sea turtles and cleaning fish. Or twins. You must write for your audience, but you do that by calculating the meaning of every word for maximum effect. When you scour your prose to determine the effect of every word, it isn’t to affect you, it is to affect your audience. How do you write for your audience? Depends on who you are writing for…

    Are you writing for Yourself?

    To the guy saying, “What if I’m writing in a journal?” Well, you’re your own audience. Write for yourself then. This applies directly to journals. If you keep a journal, do it right. Include the details you’ll need or want later. Write to inform yourself. Read your old journals and ask yourself, “What do I wish I would have included?” It will make your journal even better.

    Are you writing for a Teacher?

    Then you better follow the prompt they give you. I’m asked, a lot, to review papers and essays for friends. My first question always is, “What’s the prompt?” and they look at me, mouth agape. Every essay and paper has a prompt, follow it. Learn what your professor wants. Every teacher has biases; gear your paper to those biases. If your professor says he thinks Shakespeare was a Marxist, don’t write a paper arguing Shakespeare was a libertarian.

    Are you writing for a Writing Contest?

    Like the professor, you better read and reread the contest rules. They can be specific. This applies to short story contests, screenplay contests, poetry contests, whatever.

    Are you Blogging?

    Write for your niche. Or don’t. Either way, think about who you are writing to on your blog, and write for them. Use your audience for feedback, find out what they like, what they share, and what they comment on. Let your audience guide you.

    Are you querying a Magazine or Agent?

    Go online, and figure out what the magazine wants. Or what types of books the agent sells. If they sell science fiction, don’t send in romance. Figure out who they are, then tailor your writing to them.

    Are you writing for your Audience?

    If you’re writing the church newsletter, the President’s State of the Union address or a children’s film, you shouldn’t use curse words. On the other hand, if you are writing hip hop lyrics or underground gonzo journalism, you probably should. If you’re writing for a news article for the general public, avoid big words. If you’re writing for academics, your prose better have four syllable words in it, or you won’t be taken seriously.

    Your audience informs everything in your writing, from content to style, the size and length of your words, sentences, paragraphs and the entire thing you are writing depend on your audience. The level of vernacular, jargon, colloquial-ity, creativity and experimentation all depend on your audience. What do they want? What do they expect? How will your words affect them?

    About the author

      Eric Cummings

      Eric Cummings writes about art and philosophy for On Violence, a blog on military and foreign affairs written by two brothers–one a soldier and the other a pacifist.

    • Tedel says:

      Although I understand your point in this one, I think your first rule of writing is more important than this one.

    • Arne Tietz says:

      If you WANT to write for an audience than think about what they may want to read. If you just want to say something about some topic(s) than write, write, write. The audience that fits will find you and stay.

      I’ve read a lot of BS and lot of awesome articles,… in many blogs,… and both kinds of sites are having their audience.

      BUT, if you are not happy with the audience that comes to you THAN you have to think about your writing, maybe your not writing what you want to write (see the first golden rule).

      I do like your (golden) rules, although they are kind of obvious.

      • Eric C says:

        The point is the really are no universal writing rules, except these two.

        Everything else is just details, or a suggestion.

    • Audience is always tricky because even people who are supposed to be in your audience are not always going to like or agree with what you’re writing. While it is important to keep them in mind, it’s also important to stick to your guns when you have something you really want to say.

      • Eric C says:

        I didn’t say you had to please your audience, but you do have to think about them. What are they going to say? How will they react? What will they counter with? Anticipate objections. Answer them.

        I’d have to say if you’re arguing something, you have to think about your audience even more. If you’re writing an op-ed (by its nature something someone somewhere will disagree with) then you have to really formulate your argument.

    • Wohnus says:

      This is another one of those rules that you just want to say, “No, duh!” But I find myself all the time forgetting who I’m writing for. I think I initially begin with the idea that I’m writing for myself, like I’m writing a journal, then realize I need to change everything to make my meaning available to a larger audience. Great follow-up to your original article. Can’t wait for a “Silver Rules” of writing series from you. I could use more of these tips.

    • Subhead “Write for you reader(s).” could use a correction.

      Good article!

    • Very good post. I completely disagree with the second rule when applied to literature. The art of writing is a means and a purpose in itself, inherently. After 150.000 books sold in my language, which is Spanish, I still don’t think about my audience.
      Best regards from Chile and keep up the good work!

      • Eric C says:

        You don’t think about your audience in any way? If you write kids books, don’t you avoid cursing, swearing and adult writing?

    • The “first golden rule: intend every word you write”, is easy to implement in once writing. This “second golden rule: write for your reader(s)” will give me lots of headaches. If I read the second golden rule correctly one has to adjust ones writing style to the audience one is writing for. This implies that a writer must know how to handle a lot of different writing styles.

      I already find it hard enough to come up with a good blog post. I doubt that I can write a blog post in a different style then the style I did it the first time if I had to rewrite it for a different audience. Not all of us have the time to follow a writing class.

      • Eric C says:

        Well, it is hard, but to me, writing is hard. Maybe try implementing the rule slowly?

    • Michael C says:

      I’m Eric’s co-blogger and I think this rule complements the first one nicely. Writing styles should shift between your own blog, guest posts on other sites and then general writing. Knowing your audience determines a lot about what you will put on the page.

      Of course, I have learned a lot about applying this rule in the last year and a half of blogging.

    • Hi Eric,

      I enjoyed this thoughtful post, especially your initial ‘Golden Rule’: “Intend every word you write.”

      I’d never heard that before, and am excited to apply the concept to my own writing. The second point you make about writing for your audience complements the first nicely. Your first rule being a wonderful inner compass, and the second rule an outer compass. Between them, I can see, they would build a fruitful tension in the writing process.

      • Eric C says:

        I think your description of the inner vs. the outer is a good way of understanding the two rules.

        I kind of wish i had thought to describe it that way…

    • Scott says:

      I don’t know if “rule” is the right word. More like axiom, or law in the physics sense.

      Good post.

      • Eric C says:

        If I come up with a third rule, I may change the name.

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