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I admit to having gotten into a little bit of a comment argument with someone last week because stated that something was a Rule and they countered, insisting that it can and did get broken all the time (if memory serves, the Rule I invoked was "write in past tense"). The thing is, I don't think we actually disagreed on the subject, except for my use of the word Rule.

The thing is, any semi-experienced writer comes to realize that there are, in fact, Rules to writing. Now, none of these rules are inviolable (except maybe the one that says "make sense", and I can even think of a ton of examples where this one was successfully transgressed), but they do exist, and breaking them has consequences. Personally, I find that having a set of heuristics that I can choose to "break" from time to time is much more useful than being supposedly "free form".

So... why am I choosing "rule" instead of "guideline" or "heuristic"? Because I think that by and large, things like "use past tense" or "don't use second person" are rules in the sense that there are consequences for breaking them. That doesn't mean they can't be broken, just that they exist and there are consequences to breaking them. The best parallel I can think of is in music theory. There is a "rule" that says that when you play a V chord you have to follow it up with a I chord. If you don't, then classically speaking you don't close the loop that the audience expects you to close. Now, even back in classical times there was a way of circumventing this called the deceptive cadence, and with rock in particular this rule is violated (example: "Louie Louie"'s chord progression is I-IV-V-IV) so often that it's hard to even notice anymore, but if someone was writing a classical choral work and wanted to know if it was OK to go from a V chord to, say, a iii chord, I'd have to say "well, the Rule is that V has to go to I... and the consequences for breaking this rule are X, Y, and Z".

I hope that made sense...

I figured I would open this up to meta-discussion. Personally, I think that "hey, you can do anything you want so long as it works" isn't terribly useful for beginning writers, who I assume are likely to be the people who come to a place like this. But I'm willing to be convinced by a solid argument the other way.

My question:

Do these kinds of answers to questions have a place on writers.SE? Yes, we can always just say "meh, let the people decide," but one of the points of a SE that's still in beta is to help determine these things.

  • What, exactly are you asking? If questions about this have a home here? Because meta meant only for questions/discussion about the mains site, not general discussion like this. – Neil Fein Aug 15 '13 at 22:26
  • My question - and apologies for not working this better - was whether or not these kinds of answers to questions have a place on writers.SE. Yes, we can always just say "meh, let the people decide" but one of the points of a SE that's still in beta is to help determine these things. – NotVonKaiser Aug 15 '13 at 23:27
  • Thanks, that makes a lot more sense as a meta question. If you could link to some example questions (if any exist) that would help pin this down. – Neil Fein Aug 16 '13 at 2:32
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    I feel obliged to point out that any result of this discussion will probably be treated as more of a Guideline than a Rule. :P – Standback Aug 16 '13 at 7:36
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The "Rules" Aren't Absolute.

We're all agreed on this, but I'm reiterating for completeness: if, for example, somebody refers to the "rule" of "Show, Don't Tell," then a lot of people may see that as being fundamentally misguided and misleading. While it's possible to expand the quick reference into a more robust explanation, this is frequently neglected, and the "rule" is misunderstood. Writing is rich, subjective, and nuanced; summing it up into "rules" seems to hold the danger of harming that nuance. If you want to refer to some common convention in shorthand, by all means do so, but it behooves us to avoid a false impression of certainty or formulism.

Recall that many of our visitors are new to writing. If you leave "The 'rules' do not always apply" as an unspoken rule, a lot of readers won't know about it. Imagine a writer who googles a question, finds an existing answer on Writers.SE, and then never comes back to the site - we'd like our answers to be full, clear, and self-contained, without unspoken rules and assumptions that casual visitors won't share.

Relying on "Rules" Can Feel Arbitrary or Judgmental.

The biggest problem with using "rules" is that they can be treated as arbitrary Thou Shalt/Thou Shalt Not commands, without explanation or understanding. "Show, Don't Tell" is good advice, but it's not a box to be ticked off - and some people treat it as though it were, because "it's a rule!".

If a rule is presented as something that should always or often be followed, but without rationale or explanation, then advice can often take the form of a list of rules that have been broken - "here, here's all the things you've done wrong." A list like that might be clear to the person answering, but it will probably feel both harsh and unclear to the person receiving the answer.

There's a diplomacy guide on the Critters workshop which delves into how phrasing things as "rules" and strict prescriptions can make it tougher for some writers to accept advice.

Let's Not Cast Ourselves As Style Police.

All that being said, Writers.SE lets everybody post pretty much whatever they want. We don't need, for example, a site policy on whether or not to refer to writing rules. The bottom line is that a good answer will almost certainly be the one presenting rules and guidelines in a clear, helpful, and constructive context; an answer relying on rules or guidelines in less-helpful ways will obviously be less helpful.

Very few answers will be improved by switching the word "rules" into "guidelines," or vice-versa, and nothing else. Boilerplate qualifications and provisos (Remember the Rule of X - not that there are really any rules, ha ha!) don't magically improve a poor explanation. I definitely would not want to see people start editing each others' posts just to argue the rules/guidelines issue; I believe that in practically every case, improving a poor answer in relation to the original question will be far more beneficial than "correcting" a "mistaken view" of "the rules of writing."

Viewing them as rules is helpful for some purposes. Viewing them as guidelines, for another. Each of us has his own approach. As long as we're all aiming for the same purpose, which approach each person takes shouldn't be a problem.

  • That's a good point about people not necessarily knowing about the rules not always applying. I certainly don't use the word in that fashion and even try to point to this fact by capitalizing it, but yeah, that makes sense. – NotVonKaiser Aug 16 '13 at 17:10
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The rules you allude to in this question (note: I didn't see the discussion you're referring to) sound a lot like guidelines, perhaps even best practices. Rules are things like "don't divide by 0" and "subjects and verbs must agree in number". Even "don't combine bleach and ammonia in an enclosed space" isn't actually a rule, just very good advice. I've found that in writing, while there are many very good ideas, there are almost no inviolate rules. (You even say that the rules you're talking about can be broken.)

Because of this, I try to cast my answers in terms of guidelines, combined (where applicable) with information about what will happen if you don't follow them. (Sure, you can use that high-powered saw without safety goggles, but... or, more germane here, you can write your story entirely in lower case, but...). I recommend this approach; not only does it avoid arguments about what is or isn't a "rule", but it gives people the tools to evaluate when and whether they should do, or avoid, a particular practice. An answer plus helping someone make future decisions on his own? Win-win!

  • I added a paragraph to explain, hopefully, in a little more detail why I prefer "rule" to "guideline" and so on. – NotVonKaiser Aug 16 '13 at 4:28
  • Thanks; your clarification helps a lot. (But I don't have time tonight to rethink/revise this answer, sorry. Later I hope.) – Monica Cellio Aug 16 '13 at 4:35

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