Monday, November 11, 2013

Know the rules before you break them

Like any set of rules, the rules of writing can be flexible. A few that you may be familiar with are “write what you know,” “never end a sentence with a preposition,” and “always use an outline.” These rules work great for some, but aren’t as effective for others. Sometimes I follow them, and sometimes I don’t.  

In an argument about rules, I have some friends who believe that rules should not be broken. One of their rules is “don’t steal from your own writing.” That means I should not take a piece of writing that didn’t work in one place, recycle it and use it somewhere else. My friends believe that this writing can be stale, and forcing it into another piece won’t work.

What they call stale, I call recycling. I’m all about making it easy on the writer. When I’m in the zone, I write. If the writing doesn’t work for my current piece, I may use it somewhere else. I believe my subconscious brain knows more about true writing/connections than my conscious brain, because it’s about emotion or thought or language that cuts through barriers and gets right to the heart of the matter. Some words or ideas may not have anything to do with the topic, and making a connection later on is so much fun that I will never stop doing it. It’s like making a discovery twice!   

Another rule breaker is Francis Scott Key, who may or may not have been aware of this rule when he wrote the Star Spangled Banner* on Sept. 14, 1814, borrowing parts from a poem he had written nine years earlier. Many people have many opinions about the Star Spangled Banner, but I’ve never heard “stale” as one of them.  

So, find a piece of writing that doesn’t work in its current spot, and put it somewhere else. Maybe it’s a scene, a character trait, or the most beautiful sentence you’ve ever written. Finding the right place for your work is like discovering a piece of a puzzle that your conscious brain had lost, but your subconscious brain knew was great enough to wait for the right place to put it.  

Write soon,

*The Star Spangled Banner was set to the tune of an English drinking song “To Anacreon in Heaven.”


  1. Mary--I embrace recycling wholeheartedly. It's good for the environment--otherwise, the ground would be littered with stinky, sucky, rejected writing pieces.

    I also believe in recycling winning pieces. If you write a story about getting your head stuck in a sink at work because you were too cheap to pay for a shampoo at your hair salon--and it gets published in a collection of creative nonfiction--you can take the same story idea and refashion it for a fictional volume. (I make it a habit to start the "everything-old-is-new-again" piece WITHOUT the first piece in front of me. That way, I have to start fresh.)

    Yes, we have to break the rules sometimes if we plan on being ground-breakers...

  2. I absolutely recycle those stale pieces, spice them up and send them. I have been a rule breaker from day one because I didn't know any better. Most of the time bending or breaking the rule has paid off.