Tuesday, January 10, 2012

There Is No Formula For Writing

I was working this weekend with my 7th grade son on a writing project for his school. I have to say, as an English instructor, I get very frustrated at the approach the schools are taking with their writing today. Don't even get me started on the whole 5 paragraph essay garbage. (Breathe Scott, Breathe).

In any case, as I was working on the assignment with him, it got me thinking about the approaches that many authors seem to take when it comes to writing in their given genres. There seems to be a belief that there is a strict formula that has to be followed for everything we do in publishing. Query letters are written one way and only one way. A synopsis must be formatted this way and there are no exceptions. When writing a romance, the characters have to have different hair colors... you get the idea.

In reality, there are not fixed rules. I am reminded here of the line from Pirates of the Caribbean. Barbossa says, "...the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner ." Arrrrggggghhhhh (oooh, feeling might piraty now). Still, Mr. Barbossa really is on the right track. Your job as a writer is to work within the broad guidelines that editors and agents give you you. Your job, is to look at your story and determine what the best approach would be to convey that message. It may be 1st person, it may be 3rd person. You may use a prologue, you may skip it. The point is, use your brain. Think. Don't try to force everything into a single model. It just won't work.



  1. You're so right, Scott. An author friend of mine (self-pubbed, by the way, after trying the traditional route) always says, "Writers write--the rest is just guidelines". I'm going to quote that Barbossa line to him--he'll probably start talking with a piraty accent, too :)

    Seriously, you hit this on the head. Those of us that write without genre sometimes feel lost precisely because we don't have any "strictures" to stick to, and few are brave enough to sally forth into the great genre-less unknown, where everything is possible. You're right, and not just for the fiction writing itself--queries, synopses, pitches, etc. We need to use our heads, period.

    Great advice, as always. Thanks for this!

  2. Regarding guidelines, you made me remember a trip to Egypt when I commented to a local that no one paid attention to the traffic lights. Ah, he said, the traffic lights are just a recommendation.

  3. Must breathe...

    In 2008-2009 I returned to college and I struggled BIG TIME with the 5 para essay. The instructors actually promoted the importance of this structure for my scholastic career. Huh? :D

  4. I used to be oone of those teachers because the first time I assigned an essay to my 10th grade English class, they were terrible, unbelievably terrible. Unreadable and unintelligible. I had to teach a way to organize the information. You can't build a house without a foundation and blue prints. That's what a five-paragraph essay is. Once that's mastered--fly away, little one. I imagine your son didn't need this step.

  5. Thank You! I happen to be formula-resistant, but that leaves me a little insecure sometimes. I appreciate the little boost.

  6. I hate following formulas!!! I'm so glad to hear that someone else agrees too. I think that is why people tend to "hate" writing or don't find it very creative...there are too many rules. Art is fun because there isn't any rules. Writing should be the same way.

  7. There may be no formulas for writing, but there definitely are for publishing and the business of book sales. Write to your heart's content, but learn the business of book publishing inside and out. Just my take on it. :D