Rhyme and un-reason
Singing the story

Demandingly 'wrong'-headed

I put on my flak jacket a couple of days ago, when someone on a forum started yet another thread about 'the rules'. (I'd post the link, but it was in the private part of WriteWords.)The gist of the question was: when, in learning to write, had each of us realised we were following... no, I won't say 'the rules', but established ideas of techniques that work? And in the discussion, someone posted what's apparently a Buddhist saying, that 'When the pupil is ready, the teacher appears.'

At school, and in most homes, and in most jobs, there's always a 'right' way to do things and the quicker you learn to do things 'right', the more impressed your parents and teachers are with you, the more ticks, the better the mark. There's a goal of rightness, at least implied if not stated, and you try to reach it. These days they call them learning outcomes, but it's fundamentally the same thing: goals, outcomes, products. But learning isn't as simple as that, and certainly no art can be, in that sense, right or wrong. So there can't be a right or a wrong way to do it. As I was trying to unpick in Messes, Clones and Plots like a W, what worries me about 'the rules' is that the very term implies the idea that you must learn them, in order to get your writing 'right'. And yet if you want to learn something you know nothing about, it's hard to see where else to start, other than with someone telling how to do it.

The answer, of course, is that (unless you're one of the not-rare-enough people who don't think having read a book or two is a necessary qualification for writing one) you don't know nothing about writing. You're just not aware of the body of knowledge you have, because it's built up in you by stealth. One of the most important moments in my learning about what the academics call pedagogy (only I don't because I can't pronounce it and it sounds silly) was when after twenty years of taking photographs quite seriously I did my first ever course. Suddenly I was offered a vocabulary, a structure for my intuitive knowledge: ways of thinking about what I'd always done. Yes, I was shown new things, helped towards better work. But at every turn, every week, I was mapping these new structures of ideas and techniques onto my instinctive, almost physical, certainly un-unalytical and un-analysed experience. I was ready, and the teacher appeared. And more important still was the fact that, when I was offered a guideline, a 'right' way, a rule if you like, instead of doing as I was told, I couldn't help but measure it against that experience, and accept, adapt or discard it accordingly.

Of course it's not as simple as that. With the rare exception of the farmer's child who's been driving tractors for years, learning to drive is a good example of having to learn a set of rules with little prior experience to map them on to. But driving is a very both-sides-of-the-brain activity, of the kind I was exploring in Rhyme and un-reason, and because you can only learn about driving by doing it, what you're told are the rules, and what you learn as you try to follow them, can't help but form a feedback loop, a virtuous (you hope) spiral of physical, intuitive experience and explicit knowledge.

So I don't think it's necessarily a mistake to start along the road to becoming a writer by signing up to a course. When it's well tutored, the usual structure of a series of workshops - critiquing writing done in class and in between - forms a very similar virtuous spiral. But I do think that it may not be the best way to start. Art is what you get when craft becomes the channel for an individual consciousness and personality, but it only comes about when that consciousness and personality can demand what they need of the craft. Which may well be the 'wrong' way, but if the first things you learnt about writing are not how to listen to that demandingly 'wrong'-headed voice, but how to get things 'right', then you may never hear it speak at all.


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Interesting post, as always, Emma. And one I agree with.

I think learning as much as one can about writing is more important than memorising rules. And there is so much more to writing than a set of rules or even guides, though no doubt knowing your craft is important.

I liked, though didn't agree 100% with, this quote from Conrad Richter: “Writers today read too much & do likewise … Animals who feed on other animals are not good to eat – only those who feed on grass … Natural people are the grass and there are few left.” from http://www.sarahsalway.blogspot.com/ .

As always, interesting reading here. Thanks.


Jeremy James

Great post, Emma. You have a very interesting blog.

I think it's possible (assuming *some* natural facility) to become a good writer by reading and absorbing craft from the work of others, in conjunction with considerable trial and error while composing one's own material.

But I also believe that a writer can develop their abilities much more quickly if they combine this intuitive approach with formal instruction, in roughly the same manner you did with photography.

Most of what (little) I know about writing fiction came from voracious reading during childhood and into early adulthood. But almost everything I know about structure came from writing and screenwriting books.


The first thing those who signed up to my Creative Writing course had to learn was that there are no rules. None. But out of over 1,000 people taking the course, about 990 took a long time to accept the fact and 90 never have. I get so many questions asking about learning the rules I dream about them.

Emma Darwin

Nik - yes, not sure I agree with that Richter quote, though he's got a point: you do have to get out of the library and the study every now and again, and go and get a life, just so you remember what life feels and looks like before you go home and try to write it.

Jeremy, I agree that good teaching is a fast-track way of becoming a better writer. Though (maybe this is merely a UK/US difference of terminology) the idea of 'instruction' in writing gives me the shivers. What worries me is what it does to an aspiring writer when they sign up for teaching (let alone 'instruction') before they've done lots and lots of writing and know something about their own writerly self.

Susan, yes, I think there is a hard core of people who find having no rules really frightening, and they'll beg for rules (as you've found!), to be told what's right and what's wrong, and defend them to the death in talking about writing, because they seem a fixed point in the slippery, subjective business of deciding for yourself what works and what doesn't.


'Suddenly I was offered a vocabulary, a structure for my intuitive knowledge: ways of thinking about what I'd always done.'

This seems a key point to me - as an intuitive writer - having the critical 'tools' to question and assess my work when I come to edit.

I've just been to a launch event for the writers' course I used to attend - reminded me how much I learned and what I owed to the stories I wrote then.

Kim Hatton

In writing isn't there always a sense of knowing nothing, of starting out towards a new destination with some idea of where you'd like to go and what you wish to say but being ready to accept the status of a beginer?

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." - Shunryo Suzuki-Roshi

David I

Another fine post, Emma.

The big question isn't whether writing can be taught. It's whether writing can be learned--and I think the answer is the one you alluded to, which is, yes, but only by the prepared mind.

I think people get the wrong image when they hear about writing being "taught", as though it were algebra. Almost all the writing classes I'm aware of are really workshops, very similar to studio classes for art...

Emma Darwin

Sarah, I think it's a good point, that the (rather crude) distinction I was making between intuitive understanding and acquired knowledge also applies to different stages of work on the same piece. Though I do think that intuition plays a huge part in revising and editing too: it's your intuition that tells you that a phrase clanks like a cracked bell, your knowledge that helps you work out how to make it ring clearly.

Kim, yes, I think it's true that you have to accept that in some sense you're a beginner when you start any new piece of work. In fact, the only thing that gets me writing at all is having an idea but not being at all sure if I can pull it off... Your quote's just started another post off in my head.

David, yes, I agree that good workshops are like that, but I fear that the explosion of CW teaching in our 'learning-outcome' oriented education system means that the pressure to teach prescriptively in the cause of predictable outcomes is huge.

Vanessa Gebbie

HI Emma

As a writer who took a lot of flak in a similar thread at Writewords, it is interesting to read the arguments are bobbing up again.

I admire the considered and level headed articles you've written here on the topic, and I think our views are not that dissimilar. It is/was hard to argue cogently when emotions run high.

I've responded, and linked to both your articles on my blog.


Emma Darwin

Hi, Vanessa, and thanks for the links. Interestingly, the WriteWords thread that prompted this stayed entirely good-tempered.

I think the 'rules' squabble so often flares up because on one side you have writers who fiercely reject the idea that there are rules of any kind, and at a fundamental level I'm one of them. But I can see why some beginner-writers want them - beg for them, as Susan says - and then feel very threatened when they're told they shouldn't because there aren't any.

Becoming a writer is partly a matter of discovering that it's not about 'right' and 'wrong' but about 'works' and 'doesn't work'. Unfortunately, the latter is subjective, context-dependent and culturally contingent. Which means that you can't ever tell someone in the abstract what will work and what won't, and they can't learn one-size-and-colour-fits-all 'infallible' rules, any more than you can about fashion, say. That makes some learner-writers (and indeed weak teachers) feel completely cast adrift, and I'm not surprised that if someone has given them a convincing-sounding lifebelt about never changing point-of-view in a single scene, say, they cling to it with all their might, and fight off anyone who tries to take it away from them, even if that person is Jane Austen.


This is a subject that regularly raises its head in the field of creative writing, isn't it? I very much agree with your last posting, Emma - any guidelines that a particular writer may find useful are very subjective and context dependent. The trouble with the rule-makers is they want to universalise the particular, and I just don't think that works in the context of creative writing.

Every time I've come across a so-called 'rule' of creative writing I've been able to reach out to my book shelves, take down a wonderfully written novel, and discover its author has broken that 'rule.' Which leads me to believe that if these rules are being ignored by successfully published writers, then they aren't rules at all.

What seems to be happening is the burgeoning world of 'wannabe' writers is creating a culture where 'rules' are being bandied about without being cross-referenced to what is actually being published and read. Indeed, I've even come across people calling Booker prize winning authors 'bad writers' because their work doesn't abide by the so-called rules! It's ludicrous.

Yes, people going on creative writing courses and trying to improve their writing need something to work with, but from what I've seen trying to follow overly-prescriptive rules simply makes writers overly self-conscious and can destroy their natural writing voice.

In my opinion the very best way to improve your writing is to keep writing and do lots of reading. Workshop style 'courses' and groups where the main activity is reading and commenting on each other's work can be incredibly useful and even inspiring: courses and books which try to force you to follow 'rules' that most talented writers haven't even heard of, let alone follow, don't help at all.

The Mock Duckling

I was going to post this on Vanessa's blog. But I couldn't as I wasn't on blogger. I'm sure I've posted something like this on your blog before, Emma. But for what it's worth:

My problem with the "rules" (and anyone who knows me I love thinking about this stuff and certainly engage with the IDEAS behind those rules even if I don't like the idea of "rules") is that so often it's a just a list of negatives. Things that are often done badly, and that becomes translated as "must be cut out altogether." Rather than an inspiring list of positives.

But people cutting away all the stuff that is bad according to the "rules" don't necessarily end up with something GOOD.

I suspect a lot of this is down to individual experience. If you have a good tutor who is inspiring and interesting and engaging about them and you can use them to your advantage maybe that's well and good. But other people encounter rules (certainly I have) on forums etc that are treated as gospel but don't make much sense at all, or have been horribly misunderstood. Show not Tell is one I see misunderstood time and time again. And calling it a "rule" ends up replacing the need for the writer to really think about why the idea came about in the first place - which was to make things more immediate and increase tension. However, adding in lots of meaningless activities that tell us nothing about the character and distract from the real action does not necessarily do either of these things.

If you're going to use them you have to understand the problems they were set up to solve, first and foremost.


Another interesting post Emma, thank you. It seems almost everyone here has an instinctive distrust for 'the rules', which is heartening. Really if all we wanted to do was follow rules then we may as well pack it in now and write Mills & Boon.

As for how much of being a writer is intuitive, I think it is an unusual ability, not because writers are necessarily more intelligent or sensitive or emotionally honest than 'other people', but rather their willingness to enter into an activity that is of itself meaningless, and to trust that you and others will draw meaning out of it down the line. For me, getting onto the MPhil was about improving my writing so that I could get published (getting it right in other words), but it's turned out to be just as if not more important for helping me understand why writing matters to me, seeing in others some of the things I've suspected in myself. I don't think courses can teach anyone how to be a writer (from scratch so to speak), but I think they can teach you why you want to be one in the first place.

Emma Darwin

MockDuck, I think that's absolutely right. Learning the rules without the whys and wherefores is like chanting the times tables without understanding what multiplication is (does? note to self, ask mathematical sister). Mind you, the only way I can ever remember what 7x8 is is to chant it under my breath, and equally there is a role for little aides-memoir in writing. But only when you really understand what they're all about.

Harvey, yes, I think the best reason for doing a Masters is to further your writing in a general way - goodness knows there's no guarantee of being published - and that includes understanding your writerly self. A good Masters (specially one as open-ended as the Glamorgan MPhil) is a fast track to that understanding, and it's that writerly self that will get you published, not a smart certificate.


I love the times tables analogy! I never could remember them but I know how numbers work, so I can figure out what 7x8 is the long way round (3x8 = 24, double it = 48, add another 8 = 54). As a result, I could argue that I have a better understanding of maths than the person who learnt their times table by rote.

I suspect that one reason online discussions about rules are so popular (and as result sometimes become heated) is because they force you to deconstruct the rule and question why it's there and what it might mean. Doing that will bring you to a point of uncertainty and flexibility, which some people relish and others are fearful of.

David I

I have to disagree with the notion that athere are no rules at all. Writer Bill Brohaugh long ago claimed there was exactly one rule:

"Never start a sentence with a comma."

I haven't yet felt the urge to break it.

Emma Darwin

Judy, that's just the point - if you understand how it works, you can tackle it all sorts of ways. Whereas if you understand how it all works, you can use it the way it suits you.

David, I love that. The only rule I could think of last time I was blogging about this was about starting at the top left-hand corner of the page, but this is much neater!

Kate Long

Frankly, with all these cordoned-off areas of language, it astonishes me anyone’s able to write at all. It’s as if you plonked someone on a colourful mosaic floor and told them, “You’re not allowed to step on brown, or blue, or yellow, or turquoise. Now, dance your heart out!”

A lot of what passes round as ‘stylistic writing rules’ on the internet – and, I’m sorry to say, in some published CW books – is at best misleading, in that these rules can never be universally applied. At worst it’s plain damaging.

So you get half a tale, as in “avoid adverbs”, where the exponents of this rule don’t mean all adverbs, they don’t mean the sequencing words like ‘then’ and next’ and ‘yesterday’, or even the ones that tell you frequency such as ‘occasionally’. They mean just the ones that tell you how an action was done - only they always neglect to spell out that information.

Or you get information that’s simply wrong, such as “avoid passive verbs like ‘was’ and ‘were’”, a tip that’s not only grammatically incorrect in its framing, but one that’s pretty much impossible to follow, since the verb ‘to be’ acts as an auxiliary in the formation of so many of our tenses.

But my chief objection to boiled-down rules is that they can seriously interfere with the development of a writer’s voice. Instead of asking himself whether a speech tag or an adverb or an extra line of dialogue sounds right within the balance of the specific paragraph, a new writer may instead reach for the template of rules and squash it down over the top, making his writing fit by main force.

David I

Oh, Lord, Kate--I was once dogpiled on a writing forum for mentioning that it is nearly impossible to write English at all without adverbs, and then listed all the kinds of adverbs (much like you just did).

My, I'm still stinging from the invective. If I had to sum it up, the thrust was: It makes us really angry when someone tries to dilute a perfectly good and understandable rule by getting technical.

And I also pointed out to one fellow who stated "I never use adverbs" that "never" was an adverbs. That made me a lot of friends...

Emma Darwin

I started replying to you, David and Kate, and it turned into another whole post. So my reply is here:


David Bowman

We have long lived by the concept: "Break rules purposefully, not accidentally."

I recently took an editing course. I couldn't help but think that I could have taught the course better--except for one thing. I learned new ways to describe and communicate what I know how to do.

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