November 07, 2023

Restrictive Writing Rules


One of the biggest causes of writer’s block is all of the restrictive writing rules floating around out there. Many of these writing “rules” are created by other writers and editors. Most of the time, they are opinions, and writers fall for them, thinking they are law, but they are not. Usually you can tell which “rules” are opinions, like not writing sentences that start with “as” or “-ing” words (gerunds).

For Example: As she rocked the baby, she hummed under her breath.

Or: Shaking her head, she glared at him.

There is nothing wrong with those sentences. Nothing at all. They are grammatically sound. More importantly, you very well can rock a baby and hum simultaneously. You can also shake your head and glare at someone at the same time. Writing sentences like this is NOT a sign of a hack writer, as some would say (I actually saw this wording in a book for writers), which in fact is an awful thing to say. Talented, dedicated writers have sentences like this in their work. I do, and so do well-known authors.

The only time I have a problem with sentences that start with “as” or “-ing” words is if it’s impossible for a human to do the two actions mentioned at the same time.

For Example: Running upstairs, she hopped onto her bed.

Unless her bed is in the middle of the staircase, this does not work. The character would have to run up the stairs, enter her bedroom, and then hop onto her bed.

Another writing rule I came across is not to write about tears. Yes, really…tears. This rule was published in a book of writing rules shared by published authors. I found it at the library and couldn’t believe the “advice” in it. The author for this rule said not to write about tears in any shape or form. No teary eyes. No tears on your characters’ cheeks. No lingering tears. Etc. Etc. Etc.


Tears are an emotional reaction, a physical cue that happens when we are sad, happy, or angry. Tears mean something is going on internally, and one way for that turmoil to get out is through the formation and shedding of tears. Tears are normal, natural, HUMAN. You can’t write about a crying character and not mention tears.

I feel a tear coming on right now that this rule exists in a book that writers can read.

Another rule I find crazy is to use only 10 exclamation points per manuscript. Or not to use them at all. Let me just say this…

I HATE RESTRICTIVE WRITING RULES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

There. I abolished that rule.

I feel so much better now.

I do want to say, however, that many writers could cut back on their use of exclamation points. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t use an exclamation point. After all, it was invented for a reason. Nor do you have to make sure you only used 10 exclamation points in your manuscript. If you use 11, no one is going to take away your exclamation point key.

There are helpful writing rules available—such as grammar rules, eliminating passive voice, and cutting out telling phrases like “She saw” and “He heard” for stronger, tighter sentences.

But if you come across a rule that sounds silly, mean, or restrictive, there’s a good chance that it’s an opinion. Opinions are not shared by everyone, nor do they have to be accepted by everyone.

When writers worry about all these rules while writing the first draft of their stories, they can stunt their creativity. Writers will second-guess every sentence they put down, thinking they are wrong. Worse yet, that they are bad writers.

Sometimes, these writing rules make me wonder if writers before us made them up and spread them around in order to trip up the rest of us. There are writers in this world who view all other writers as competition, and when someone has competition, what do they do? Find any way to beat them, even with sabotage. Now, I’m not saying this is what these writers were doing, but it makes me wonder.

Elmore Leonard stated, “You are allowed no more than two or three [exclamation points] per 100,000 words of prose.” The funny thing is, considering his own manuscripts, he averaged 49 exclamation points per 100,000 word. And over the course of all his works, he used a total of 1,651 exclamation points. Hmm…

Jane Austen apparently used 449 exclamation points per 100,000 words, and she only published six books. James Joyce reportedly used a massive 1,105 exclamation points per 100,000 words for his three novels. These statistics came from The Atlantic.

So, don’t worry if you have a lot of exclamation points. On the other hand, you can remove the mark when you use “shouted,” “yelled,” “screamed,” etc. in a dialogue tag.

Another writing rule I find absurd is not to write about dreams.

First, I understand not using dreams that are random, like the dreams we have at night, but sometimes a dream is part of the plot. For instance, a character can have psychic dreams that foretell something they need to stop from happening. Or a character can have a nightmare about an event from their past that comes back to haunt them during the course of the story. Dreams can be relevant, so if you want to write about a dream or nightmare, you very well can.

One rule that stumped me has been cited in best-selling books for writers—a writer should only write in one genre/category. The authors of these books go so far as to say that a writer is only skilled at writing one genre, meaning flash fiction, short stories, novels, etc.


I could not imagine being forced to write only one genre my whole life or being pinned as a writer who can only write well in one genre but not the others that inspire me. Nor would I want to have to write stories of the same length forever.

How boring!

How restrictive!

Whatever idea comes to me, I write it, regardless of genre and length. And you should, too.

How dare someone claim an author can only do one genre well?

How dare someone claim authors should focus on one genre, not two, not three, not as many as the author chooses to write?

Writers who are just starting out on their writing journey may have two ideas in vastly different genres. For example, one project could be a high fantasy novel and the other could be a non-fiction short story, but upon hearing this rule, they may be led astray, thinking they have to choose just one.

But you don’t!

You can write any genre under the umbrella of fiction, as well as non-fiction, haiku, flash fiction, song lyrics, and anything else.

Don’t let these, or any other, restrictive writing rules stifle your creativity and cause writer’s block. Write the story you want to write, the way you want to write it.


  1. I agree with you that you have to use your judgment on the rules of writing. Some are too restrictive, and I see well-known bestselling authors breaking them, like the show, not tell rule, all the time. It's frustrating.

  2. Hard to believe anyone would say we can't write more than one genre. I get that from a marketing perspective that can be a problem (my one fantasy novel tends to get lost in the shuffle, but I have in fact published in at least 3 genres, four if you count my alphabet picture book). Another thing that gets said a lot (I think we can blame Stephen King for this) is that if you're "really" a writer you write every day. Bull.

  3. Wow! Rules would be better named as guidelines, for they are designed to be broken.

  4. I'm definitely with you on this. I hate rules that begin with 'Never...', whether it's in writing or in my job as a fitness instructor when fitness 'influencers' say 'Never do [this exercise] or eat [this food]'. One size definitely doesn't fit all.

    With writing, I see it as an art, first and foremost. No one would have told Van Gogh how to paint! If I want to start a sentence with And, I'm going to. Despite what my English teacher husband says... or possible, in spite of it 😉