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.