Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Most Important Writing Rule I’ve Ever Learned

Studying the craft of writing is a passion I first discovered when I was 15. (Yes, I consider it to be a passion in and of itself—separate from writing. Because while it directly relates to writing, I’ve noticed that not everyone who finds joy in writing necessarily finds joy in learning how to excel in their craft as well.) 

This passion of the craft lead me to buy books on how to grow in my fiction (and non-fiction) writing. I would be giddy every time the UPS man delivered a new craft book to my front door, and I’d spend hours pouring over the knowledge and wisdom contained in those books. 

Yes, writers should invest time and money into growing in their craft. Otherwise, our writing growth will remain stagnant because we won’t be challenged to rise to the next level. 

But you know what I’ve realized? Sometimes we can learn so much about the craft that we become paralyzed, so consumed with following the rules that our writing becomes rigid and formulaic. It may start to lose our artistic touch and unique style and voice. 

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I believe this is why it’s taken me so long to finish the sequel to PURPLE MOON. Every time I would sit down to work on this book over the past four years, I'd feel stuck. Lost. Everything I’ve learned about the craft drilled fear into me as I wrote. This fear whispered to me, saying things like, “You need to have a goal, motivation, and conflict for this scene.” “How is this scene pushing the story forward?” “You’re writing way too much interior monologue.” “What if the readers of PURPLE MOON are disappointed in this book?” 

In other words: I was trying way too hard to write a “perfect” first draft. Those rules kept me from experiencing the joy of losing myself in writing the first draft. 

Thus, I was held back from continuing this story for months. 

The truth is, I didn’t follow every hard-and-fast rule when I wrote PURPLE MOON—yet it still resonated with readers. Why is this? I believe that’s exactly why: Because I didn’t write that first draft with those rules in mind. In fact, I didn’t even write it with the hopes of having it meet the expectations of readers. 

I wrote it simply because it was the kind of story that I, myself, wanted to read. I lost myself in the story as I wrote. And I believe that joy I experienced was captured onto the pages and connected with readers as well. 

I don’t want my readers to read my books and say, “Wow, there’s not one writing rule that she broke.” 

Truth is, most readers—mainly those who aren’t writers—aren’t going to know whether or not we’ve followed every rule in our writing. But they will know whether or not they were taken on a captivating journey and experienced a story that pulled them away from their surroundings. 

That’s the kind of writer I want to be: Not the kind that is so focused on writing a book that adheres to all the rules, but the kind that writes from the heart. A writer who writes stories for the pure joy of it—because when I fall in love with my story first, then others will, too. 

And that is the most important writing rule I’ve ever learned: 

To simply sit down, push the rules away from your mind, and write a book that sweeps you away. 

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That’s what I’ve been doing this month. I’ve finally broken through this writing paralysis (sounds more accurate than writer’s block, doesn’t it?) and have been working on completing the first draft of this sequel. I’m reminded of the times when I wrote PURPLE MOON as a teenager and how much fun it was to capture the movie that reeled through my mind. 

Sure, writing rules have their place. But that “place” shouldn’t arrive until the editing and revision stages. After the first draft has been scribbled down.

Until then, I’ll carry on, remaining in this dreamlike stage as I record the continuation of Selena’s story. 

~ ~ ~ 

Have you experienced a writer’s paralysis that comes from being a perfectionist? Do you find that writing rules are paralyzing, helpful, or both?


  1. I'm having the same struggles and recently came to the same conclusions you did! Glad it's not just me--and glad you're persevering.

    1. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one too, Laurie! Thanks for letting me know. =) <3

  2. As a perfectionist, I find following certain rules helps me to be satisfied with my writing as I create my first draft, but I definitely agree that rules can be paralyzing. I think the difference for me is that I'm following mostly the sentence-level rules - watching for too many adjectives, "---ing, she...", and unvarying sentence structure - and the rules I just ignore are the scene/plot-level ones! (Much to Future Me's disgust, I'm sure, when she finds herself with a heap of macro editing to do...)
    Jem Jones

    1. That sounds like myself, too. The rules I tend to break on my first draft include the scene/plot rules, as well as dialogue. (That’s so much easier to strengthen once it’s first written in a sloppy form.) Macro-edits are definitely not fun, though!

  3. I am a rebel at heart, so I am a big fan of the "learn the rules so you can break them" philosophy. That said, I crumble under the pressure to make my manuscript perfect.

    You put more expectations on yourself when you become an adult and realize how high the writing industry stakes really are. Anyway, thanks for this. It was super encouraging. <3 Continuing to lift you and your book up to the Lord! You got this!

    1. Stephanie, you nailed it. That’s why I love to encourage teen writers – because for the most part, they’re writing for the pure joy of it. I never want that joy to be zapped away due to fear/pressure of expectations.

      I’m glad you were encouraged by this, Stephanie! Thanks so much for your prayers. <3 Miss you!

  4. I've had/have experienced the same problem, and have driven myself almost to tears because I'm not following the rules. I start to hate my story, and lose any joy I had for it.

    Loved this post Tessa! It was encouraging, and I'm going to print out sections and put them by my desk.

    1. I can definitely relate! Which is why, of course, it’s advised to write a sloppy first draft first. Our left-brain shouldn’t necessarily come into play until we reach the next drafts. =) The “rules” are there to strengthen our stories, not to constrict us from finding joy in the writing process.

      One thing I have to remember is that I’m writing the first draft for my eyes only. I give myself permission to break the rules and write a terrible story. That way, I can simply write because I love it—and since I approve of it, then I won’t have the pressure to meet expectations of others. I save all that for the later drafts. ;)

      I’m glad you were encouraged by this post, Rebecca! Thanks for commenting!


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