Rules and Regulations to Command and Obey

The internet is full of rules for writing. As a recovering writing-book addict, I can say that at one time I would have read them all and swallowed them whole. But, stick around anywhere for a decade and you realize that most of the advice is for the kid you were ten years ago, who didn’t know shit about shit but was keen to learn. So, while it keeps ringing true to the next crop, they tend to bounce off me.

I’ve committed “writing advice” on more than one occasion. I’ve published articles on lessons from the pulps, on my own experiences with trying to push myself to do better, about workshops and cool writing experiments to try.

But I’m a tired of the advice barrage. It’s usually same dance, different tune. Riffs on Heinlein’s rules, or Bradbury’s, etc. Again, all fine, but I’ve read that stuff to death for shit and giggles and usually hunger for something more.

Nick Mamatas’s article is the best antidote to many assumed truisms that get bandied about these days. And it reminded me about military doctrine. Because rules for writing can be seen that way: a body of knowledge about best practices to achieve certain goals with certain tools.

The problem and benefit of doctrine, of course, is that it’s usually rooted in experience. That is, rooted in place and time. As we march further away from the “how and why” of experience that validates the doctrine, the experience tends to vanish, and all we are left with is the doctrine and the assumption that it was vetted. The result? Not doctrine, but dogma.

But the conditions, or experience, that once validated the doctrine will change. It always does. You don’t win the next war by fighting like the last war. If you try, the butcher bill of experience, paid for with blood and treasure, will be high.

So, instead of tossing a list of writing advice or counter advice at you (Nick’s is a good place to start), I propose instead the following.

If you read writing advice, ask if it’s based on assertion or argument, dogma or vetted doctrine. Is there a legit reason for any of it? A lot of writing advice is designed to push young writers away from bad habits or towards established norms but don’t do as good a job explaining the value of doing so. Whenever you see writing advice, ask yourself, “did they actually explain why first person was evil?”, “why fantasy taverns are box office poison”, “or why must I show when I think telling might work”?

Also, if you don’t like a rule, remember, they were made to be broken. Go find what those exceptions are. Study how they broke the rules. See if you can find a way to apply it to your own work.

In all this dialog of do’s and don’ts, rules and regulations, mantras and marquee ideas, my favorite came from Jeffrey Ford and and old quip from Alice Munro

“Write whatever the fuck you want.” Ford.

“Do what you want, and live with the consequences.” Munro.



About ridlerville

Jason S. Ridler is a historian, writer, and improv actor. He is the author of A TRIUMPH FOR SAKURA, BLOOD AND SAWDUST, the Spar Battersea thrillers and has published over sixty stories in such magazines and anthologies as The Big Click, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Out of the Gutter, and more. He also writes the column FXXK WRITING! for Flash Fiction Online. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He lives in Richmond, CA. Visit him on Facebook at
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3 Responses to Rules and Regulations to Command and Obey

  1. Lynda says:

    The worst writing advice for me personally was that everything had to be outlined first. I think I literally lost several years struggling to write from outlines (or to write the damn outlines in the first place, I should say), convinced I had been “doing it wrong” up to that point, before I came to my senses.

    • ridlerville says:

      Lynda, that’s awful! Joe Lansdale said the same thing in an interview, how he tried to outline for so long and it just ruined the story or sucked the life out of it for him. The worst advice I got was that there was one best way to outline. Remember Damon Knight’s short story book, with the charts and diagrams? I ran screaming in the other direction! I’m glad it works for some people, but man, it felt awkward. I tend to use a hybrid approach to outlining these days. Are you still “writing by the headlights”?

  2. Lynda says:

    Well, I feel cheered that I’m in the good company of Mr. Joe Lansdale, at least! I think “hybrid” best describes what I do nowadays too. I tend to outline/make notes as I go along and/or when I’m finished with a working draft, and then unless there’s something complicated I need to keep straight, I generally don’t need to look back at the outline much. Mostly, though, it’s still “writing by the headlights,” which for me turns out to be rather inefficient, but in the end it’s what works.

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