Writing and Publishing: Who makes the rules anyway?

In the world of writing there are many rules; almost as many rules as there are for parenting. There are rules for grammar, structure, plot, point of view, narrative, character, use of adverbs, length, genre. There are rules for writing regimes, how often and when. There are rules for raising your profile, gaining an audience, social networking. There are submission rules, how to find an agent rules, how to find a publisher rules and how to be commercial rules.

Rules are good. Rules are helpful. Rules are there for a reason. They stabilize society. They streamline processes, they make books marketable, they help you make the most effective use of your time, they help you to become a better writer.

Rule-consciousness is one of Cattell’s sixteen traits of his personality trait theory. How rule bound you are is sometimes measured on personality tests determining your suitability for certain kinds of employment. You may be the kind of person that is susceptible to social or peer pressures. Or as an artist – are you a free thinker, an experimentalist, a subvertor of convention, a mould breaker?

As a parent, as a writer, I want to fit in. I want my children to be accepted among their peers. As a writer I want my books at some point to be read and enjoyed, to make sense to people. But also I don’t want to be caught in the river of the done thing. I don’t want to spend a fortune on my child’s birthday party because every one else is doing it. I want to write from my gut first and foremost, dare to say no to convention and create something that will inspire.

The rules are changing in publishing. E-books and self-publishing, blog posting fiction are now a way of reaching an audience, not just an alternative to conventional publishing. This may lead to greater democracy, rule bending, the breaking down of categories, where the reader now rules. This may be the time when we can be the writers we want to be, using the rules to guide but not dictate, to give coherence but not stifle, to ensure quality but provide freedom.


  1. I like how you point out that maybe we could use the rules to guide us, rather than dictate our writing. Like you, I do try and follow rules when it comes to writing. But, the rules of publishing, submissions, agents are often so many, that it can become a little confusing. With the introduction of e-readers and indeed iPads, there is a revolution in publishing, which is breaking the mould. Maybe, this will transfer to writers, I guess we’ll have to watch this space…

  2. In some ways I am glad I was ignorant of “the rules” when I first started writing, I’m a great believer in the content shapes the form, and a lot of rules regarding short stories are quite dictatorial, a lot of NEVERS; I wrote a lot of stories that began with a woman waking up… which I later learnt is a real cliche, but one of them got published…so i’m glad I wasn’t aware enough of that rule to rewrite a more “original” beginning, sometimes, beginning to write, is like waking up, so thats where we start…
    And there is a real fashion, and I hope it will pass, for pared down, masculine, in my nind writing, like Carver, who is good, but he’s not God, and it’s not the only way to write a short story… “kill those adjectives!” the writing books tell me – feck off I say!

    1. Yes, I say ‘feck off’ too as will be obvious from my writing. There are different kinds of stories and markets. The New Yorker is the pinnacle of achievement for many short story writers but I’ve read articles where its been criticised for its conventiality, the magazines often want a lighter tone but there’s a lot to be said for going with the gut and being experimental. If you are aware of the rules but know how to juggle them then you can achieve so much more.

  3. There are rules?

    Nobody told me, but if they tried to I probably wasn’t listening.

    I’m with Niamh, content must always shape the form.

    I don’t think there are any rules; there are prescriptions which because they seem to have worked in the past, become calcified into rules, but they have no real legitimacy – they still relate to practices and conventions not universal rules.

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