Rules for good writing fluctuate from decade to decade. Classics that have survived generations, full of point of view shifts (head hopping), long narrations and descriptions of settings) are considered poor writing by today’s standards. The truth is, writing is judged good or bad based on one person’s feelings, taste and opinions. When enough people agree with an opinion it becomes a rule. These rules remain steadfast until another arises offering a different perspective. When enough people agree with the new perspective it supersedes the previous opinion and we have a new rule.
From a Christian perspective there is nothing wrong with rules, or laws. God gave us rules to govern the way we live because rules protect us and give us direction. The New Testament declares “[T]he law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). Paul argues without the law or rules God gave to Moses we would not recognize sin. We cannot change sinful ways if we do not know what we do is sin.
Rules for writing are not holy and righteous but they are good. The rules bring to light the weaknesses in our writing. If we don’t see the weaknesses, we cannot strengthen the message. When properly applied rules for writing bring clarity to the most important aspect of writing–its message. If you wrote an article without a theme, point of view, transitions, periods, commas, paragraphs, etc., it will be difficult for a reader to follow your thoughts.
The rules in God’s law and the rules for writing have a similar con. Rules do not guarantee success. The Pharisees were adamant about obeying the letter of the law. Their zeal to obey every rule blinded them to God’s intent for giving them law and they failed to recognize him when he walked among them in the person of Jesus. The law that should have led them to life produced death. Jesus sacrificed to free us from the letter of the law because the letter of the law kills but the Spirit of the law gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6).
The rules of writing can stifle creativity. If we don’t understand the intent of rules following rules to the letter can produce a lifeless connection of words. Good writing imparts a message that lives in the hearts and minds of readers giving hope, encouragement, instruction or simple entrainment to relieve the stress of life.
Rules have strengths and weakness. We need rules, but sometimes we must break rules to succeed. In Writing for the Soul Jerry Jenkins tells the story of his first meeting with Tim LaHaye to discuss LaHaye’s fiction book idea. Jenkin’s asked who would be the target audience. Christians who would be encouraged or the people LaHaye wanted to persuade?
LaHaye said “Both”
Jenkins replied “A double minded book is unstable in all its ways” and encouraged him to choose one.
LaHaye insisted the book address both. Jenkins agreed to write what he thought would be one book believing he could change LaHaye’s mind later, but he never did. That forced Jenkins to break the rules of “good writing” and become creative.
Jenkins explained how he overcame writing a book that would, according to the experts, be unstable:
“The key in writing Left Behind for an audience of believers as well as doubters and the uninitiated was to portray credible characters who represented opposing viewpoints. I included atheists, agnostics, doubters, the puzzled, the angry. I wanted characters anyone could identify with. And not all those characters came to see things my way, just as I knew that not all readers would.” (Jenkins, 2006)
The majority of experts agree that authors should write to a single audience, but sometimes the experts are wrong. According to Christianity Today
“The book launched a series that launched a marketing empire that launched a new set of rules for Christian fiction. The series spent a total of 300 weeks–nearly as long as the Tribulation it dramatized–on The New York Times’ bestseller list.”*
Within a few years after Left Behind was released it averaged more than a quarter million in sales a month. The Left Behind series of 12 books, 3 prequels and the spin off kid’s series has earned more than 100 million dollars.
Should rules for good writing exist? Yes, but we should break them when they fail to serve us.
Jenkins, J. (2006). Writing for the Soul. Writer’s Digest Books.