The only rule every writer must know is:

Writing “rules” are actually suggestions

 

which means:

Nothing applies to everyone

 

No one piece of writing or publishing advice applies to every writer, nor should it. But the internet abounds with articles like Rules for Writing Fiction: Part 1 and Part 2, from The Guardian. 

Note: There are more than 10 rules in those articles (122 + 123 = 245) which means a) someone can’t count; or b) some of the writers didn’t follow the rules. Hey! Some authors followed the rules while others didn’t. Hmm…

 

When an author says: “This is how you get published.”

It really means: “This is how I got published.”

No route to publication is a sure-fire path for everyone.

 

When an agent says: “You must do this in a query.”

It really means: “This is what I want to see in a query.”

Some principles apply to a majority of queries, but there might be a case where it doesn’t.

 

When an editor says: “Every story must have this.

It really means: “Many great books have this, but it might not work well in other books.”

 

When a publishing expert says: “Never do this.”

It really means: “It is probably not a good idea for most writers to do this.”

 

That said, it is good to research ways that others have found success as well as principles to writing that apply in most cases so you can see what has worked in the past. But as in life, nothing is writing or publishing is absolute. There is no one perfect way to do anything.

But that application is for your work in general. In specific cases—like querying a specific agent or editor—it’s usually a good idea to either a) do what they specifically ask, or b) don’t query them. If an agent says she does not like fantasy, sending her a query for fantasy is a waste of both your time. And you’ll probably just tick her off and your query will be rejected anyway.

Now I’m going to prove that even the rule that rules are only suggestions is not absolute. That’s why writers must study broadly to determine which advice applies to them and which is good advice in general but does not work in this specific book. That means writers need experience to distinguish between good advicebad advice, and common sense.

 

Good advice says you should:

Use correct punctuation and grammar
This is almost always the case, but there are a few successful and well-written books that don’t. ee cummings didn’t always use capital letters or correct punctuation, sometimes not even in his name. Most writers can’t get away with that, but it worked for him. And, it should be noted, he didn’t break convention in all of his work. He deliberately chose which works to apply it to, using it as another element to many of his poems.

 

Bad advice says you should:

Remove all commas
Yes, this is an actual piece of advice a writer received. Maybe someone somewhere wrote a book without commas that really worked for the story (perhaps ee cummings, above), but for most writers this is just bizarre advice.

 

Common sense says you shouldn’t:

Send flour or other white powdery substance with a query or manuscript
Do I really need to explain? Sigh. Okay. Several people at media corporation in NYC died from anthrax they received in the mail. Also, despite St. Martin’s Press’ apparent affinity for weed (teehee), most publishers or literary agencies probably won’t take kindly to gifts of drugs.

Deliver a query in person
Even if you’re the nicest person in the world, there’s no way for an agent/editor to know that you’re not a stalker. It’s creepy. Mail or email works best.

Respond rudely to a rejection
While there isn’t any sort of Black List writers can get themselves on, it’s just not nice. Everyone has feelings, and is no benefit to be nasty.

 

Moral of the story? Don’t hold religiously to things anyone says everyone must do, because not everyone must do it. Instead, educate yourself so you know what does or doesn’t apply to you. It’s as simple as that.

Other opinions

Chuck Wendig touches on this (with more colorful language) in his post 25 Things You Should Know About Writing Advice

While Nick Mamatas shares some of the advice writers get that have become cliches themselves: 10 Bits of Advice Writers Should Stop Giving Aspiring Writers

Debra Stang discusses advice that can be more detrimental than beneficial for most writers: 9 Pieces of Writing Advice I Wish I’d Never Heard

A previous post I shared on how to distinguis between legitimate advice and snake oil: Caveat Writer