Break The Rules


I’ve been trying a new writing method lately, and it goes against one of the main tenets of writing gospel.

You know what I’m talking about – the writing gospel, the two, three, five, or ten basic principles that the productive, the famous, the brilliant writers of the world preach to amateur writers who are still trying to make their way and find their voice.

There are a few, but the one I’m talking about right now is this one:

‘Don’t re-read what you’ve written.  Keep going, going, and going until you finish your first draft.  If you go back and start playing with what you wrote before, you’re doomed.’

Now I won’t say there isn’t some merit to that statement – but I think it’s more aimed at beginning or exceedingly unproductive writers who haven’t found what works for them yet and really need to finish two or three projects before figuring out their writing style.

For my most recent project I’ve been starting the day by reading the previous couple of chapters (and even allowing myself to make a few minor tweaks along the way) before starting to write.  And I was actually inspired to take this leap by Ernest Hemingway.

In a 1935 article in Esquire, Hemingway wrote:

“The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before.  When it gets so long that you can’t do this every day read back two or three chapters each day; then each weak read it all from the start.  That’s how you make it all of one piece.”

And you know what?

So far, it’s really working.

When I go back and read what I’ve written, I’m astounded.  It all sounds like it’s coming from one person – me.  It reads like one book, and I’ve actually found a unique voice and perspective that I’m using for this particular story.  There is a tone there that works for me, and I’m excited about it.

Now, when I sit down to write, I’m excited to read what I’ve written over the previous couple of days, and excited to continue on with that thread.  Many of my projects before have come out stilted, the writing often influenced by whatever book I’ve just read or the music I’m listening to.  It sometimes seemed like four or five different people were chiming in to the same story.  But now, no matter what, by reading what I’ve written before, I can pick up on the theme and tone of the story and continue it smoothly.

I even completely rewrote the first chapter twice when I started out.  It took me those few tries before I found the voice, pace, and tone that I wanted for the story.  Only after I’d finished that part did I continue on.

Am I going a little slower than I otherwise would be?  Yes, but not by much.

I’ve been finding that I’m more excited to sit down and write, which leads to longer sessions and less procrastination (much, much less procrastination, because instead of the daunting task of putting words on the page to start, I have the much easier prospect of simply reading what I wrote the day before to ease myself into it).

Clearly this idea isn’t right for everyone, and I think that’s the whole point of this post.  All of the big rules of writing – write every day, write the entire manuscript before re-reading it, etc. – they’re really more of guidelines (Pirates of the Caribbean anyone?).

Break the rules, see what works for you and what doesn’t, play around, try new things.  Do yourself the favor of understanding that what works for someone else might not work for you.  Decide how you want to write, rather than how someone else tells you to write.

What about you?  What rules of writing do you like to break?  Do you think there are any rules that are unbreakable?  What’s the weirdest writing habit you have?

15 comments on “Break The Rules”

  1. I write in this Hemingwayish way too. I have to read what I wrote before to get back into the mood of the scene and the flow of the words. The key is to restrain yourself from editing too much along the way. A few tweaks are okay, but anything more than that is a sure way to procrastinate!

  2. Every time I sit down to write, I read from the beginning of whatever chapter I’m working on. Gives me an idea of where I want to go next. I tweak as I read so that by the time I’m finished a chapter, I’m usually pretty happy about it.

  3. The moment I go back and re-read, I jump into heavy revision mode. I allow myself to do that once or twice…but there’s always a chance I will stall out. In terms of moving ahead, I tend to sketch in the barest of outlines so I can jump into something the next day.

  4. What you’re describing falls under the last of what I call “The 7 Reasonable Rules of Writing:”

    1. Excellent spelling.
    2. Good grammar.
    3. Sufficient correct punctuation for signage on the path to meaning.
    4. Thorough research.
    5. Understanding of literary conventions.
    6. Love for language and loyalty to its complete lexicon.
    7. Writing by inspiration, rather than controlling the performance of the tale.

    I always re-read and revise as I write. I also write new material at whatever point in the story I feel like working. Everything stays fresh, and there’s always something to edit, so there’s never any “writer’s block.”

  5. That’s the way I work and to hell with the rules. (I don’t like rules. I am open to accepted wisdom though). I’m glad I’m in such good company too. It shows the system works for those of us who, well, like that kind of system. Vive le difference!

  6. I treat “writing rules” more like guidelines, they will not suit everyone, but can apply to most situations as a guide. Beyond the essential basics of good structure and grammar, almost all writers work differently, therefore I do not believe any one rule applies to everyone all of the time. In my view, whatever gets the job done, is progress, and if that progress equates to completing a project; a piece of prose, essay, or novel, then surely it doesn’t really matter just as long as you’re being productive. If it works for you, then stick with it.

  7. Your last paragraph sums up so much writing advice out there. The only way to know what works for a writer, is to write! Sometimes we hear advice or suggestions and we try them out and it works for us, too. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. Glad that you found something that works for you!

  8. Since I first found NaNoWriMo, I’ve been trying to get past the “Write, re-read, edit until it dies” cycle. I was killing my stories by analyzing them to death before I even finished the first draft. It was a long road, but I finally managed to stop re-reading the whole piece before I could go on.

    That being said, I think it’s good advice to break out of the ritual once in a while. I’ve been trying this since I read it last month, and honestly, I can say that reading a few paragraphs from my previous day’s work has made it easier to get back into the flow. I’m not sure how great it would work for a novel, because I don’t have one in progress right now since I’m spending most of my time trying to market and sell the novel I’m releasing this month. But it definitely works for short fiction!

    Great blog, David.

  9. “Edit only when it’s done” is one of the top rules I think is most full of baloney. (“Write every day” and “Write fast fast fast” being the others.) It makes sense for people who read one word they’ve written and immediately want to throw their story in a dumpster – in that case the rule is helpful, because it protects the writer from defeating themselves before they’ve even finished. But for me, I actually quite like reading my story, and the tinkering is fun. I’ve even done large-scale edits midway through the project, and I’m glad I did because they made me feel better about the book as a whole and where it was going.

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