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19 September 2012

When it comes to creative writing, know the rules of writing before you break them

Do the rules of good writing apply to creative writing? Surely creative writing is the complete opposite of information writing, with its focus on structure and clarity? 

In some ways, that’s true. When it comes to creativity, anything goes. The only real criterion of successful creative writing is whether anyone wants to read it. Does it work for the reader? If you can attract readers to your page of ungrammatical blank verse, good for you.

It’s the same in any art form. Who hasn’t looked at a famous piece of modern art, with a minimal painted squiggle or primitive-looking blobs of colour, and thought ‘my 3-year-old could draw that’?

Be careful. A good artist or writer really knows their craft. They know how to reduce complex ideas into something that seems deceptively simple. Simplicity in writing is hard to do well, because it often distils many ideas down to their essence. To do that, you have to understand the rules of writing. Once you know the rules, you can be free to break them—but it should be a conscious choice.

I came upon a useful explanation of how and why rules apply to creative writing in an interview Script Magazine did with Joseph McBride, a well known screenwriter in the United States. McBride teaches screenwriting at San Francisco State University, and has written successfully for film and television.

Here’s what he said:

‘Even though, in an important sense, creative writing doesn’t have ‘rules,’ writing without any knowledge of the rules of good English prose, the rules of grammar and sentence structure, is a guarantee of muddled, messy writing. There’s a frequent misconception among students that it’s not ‘creative’ to learn the rules of good writing. Those students’ writing is often merely free-form indulgence. Discipline is essential to any genuinely creative writing. You have to know what you are doing and where you are going. Otherwise it’s just scattershot, and the story falls apart on the page. If you can’t write grammatically correct prose, your writing will lack clarity, and the reader will become exasperated in trying to follow or figure out what you might be trying to say. My screenwriter friend Sam Hamm says the first job of a screenwriter is ‘to keep the reader’s eye moving down the page.’

Well said, Joseph. Any good writing, creative or not, has to meet the needs of its reader, or they simply won’t read it. And then all that creativity goes to waste.


  1. Hi,
    I just found your blog and was intrigued by the title of this post. After reading it, I feel compelled to say that is indeed helpful because it prompted me to think. While creative writing is not necessary a ‘free flow’, the writer ought to be left free to creatively explore each and every corner they can possibly reach with their imagination … experts in other professions (editors, proof readers, language specialist) will then harness it into a required or desired format!

  2. Welcome, lanternpost2012. Two comments:

    First one: I believe that creative writing, like any other creative activity, benefits from years of exercising. A jazz musician can extemporise because of a bone deep understanding of the instrument, the rules of the music style, the capabilities of fellow musicians, and skills developed over years of practice. An artist can whip up a quick sketch that captures a scene in a few lines, but those few lines are informed by years of painstaking work. Similarly, those who have internalised the patterns of English don't have to - and shouldn't - give them a thought when writing.

    Second comment: Write teaches that the writing part of the process uses a different part of the brain to the planning and outlining that is done first, and the editing and proofreading that follows. When you've done your planning, just write. Don't worry about editing. Just write. Then edit.