IWSG: Unlearn What You Have Learned

Today’s post is part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, a blog hop where insecure writers like myself can share our worries and offer advice and encouragement. Click here to find out more about IWSG and to see a list of participating blogs.

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I own an imaginary spaceship. It’s a pretty useful thing for a science fiction writer to have. It allows me to travel all over the universe, visiting all the moons and planets and nebulae I want to write about. I’ve been to Titan, I’ve seen the alien megastructure at Tabby’s Star, and soon I’ll be going to Mars to look for Martians.

Turns out my imaginary spaceship can also take me to fictional planets, so today I’m visiting the planet Dagobah from the Star Wars universe and getting some surprisingly useful writing advice from Master Yoda.

Friends have told me this before. My muse has told me this, and so have fellow writers at all stages of their careers. Writing rules should really be called writing guidelines or writing suggestions, and some of them are really stupid suggestions too.

And yet many of these so-called rules have stuck with me, and I’ve had a tough time dislodging them from my brain. Right now, the “rule” I need to unlearn is this: when editing, cut down your word count by 15%. Or sometimes it’s stated as 10%, or 25%, or whatever. The point is cutting down your word count will make your story better.

This should really be called a writing exercise. It’s meant to teach you how to write tighter prose, and at some point I really needed to be taught that. But this simple writing exercise has transformed into an absolute rule, or a inviolable commandment, and it’s time for me to let it go.

So what writing rules have you had to unlearn?

21 thoughts on “IWSG: Unlearn What You Have Learned

  1. That is a terrible rule. It applies only to writers who are overly verbose. My first drafts are always too spartan. Every time I edit, my word count goes up, because I add necessary details, slow the pace in key areas, and beef up the prose where it is lacking depth.

    Many of these kinds of rules are rules that particular writers find useful for their specific writing style. They do not apply generally. Some are genre specific.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. When I started writing, I tended to be too wordy. But my style has changed a lot since then, so what used to be a good exercise for me has become a real problem. My stories need more detail, not less, and I need to be okay with watching my word counts skyrocket as a result.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The ones that took me a really long time to unlearn–or at least partially unlearn–are the ones from way, way back. I’m just now starting to value the benefits of writing stories by hand… in pencil… in strangely colored ink… as opposed to typing them in a professional and serious manner the first time. And I’ve had to learn HOW writers use journals as opposed to just writing in unstructured and never-ending descriptions of unconnected events.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds very interesting. My journaling is very random and unstructured. I do it mainly just to get stuff out of my head, and then if there’s anything useful I come back for it later. I didn’t realize there was another way to do it.


  3. Never start a sentence with “But” or “Because.” IIt’s not so much something I have to unlearn, as it is something my grade-school teachers were very adamant about, and which I disagreed with. I think my writing’s much better without that rule.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I must have been told that at some point too, though I don’t remember when it happened. To this day, whenever I start a sentence with and or but, a little voice in my head asks if I’m sure I want to do that.


      1. Same here. I *hate* those rules. I hear my third grade teacher telling me not to do that, but I do it anyway. Something happened before the first word of every story. So starting with a conjunction can connect the story to the rest of history.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. If you’re the kind of writer who needs to cut back 15% of your words to tighten your prose, then go for it. Otherwise, do what is necessary for the story. I usually add more words during my edits, often because I neglected to say things I should have said the first couple of times around.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m really glad to hear I’m not the only one who ends up adding more than I cut when I edit. All this time, I’ve been under the impression that I was some sort of oddball.


  5. A rule like that will only work all the time if your instincts end up with you writing 115% of the ideal version. For some people it’ll be 140%, for some people 80%… Nice idea to aim to tighten up in general though.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Yeah… I’ve heard the same rules about tightening up prose by cutting back a specific amount, but those rules seem to be too “one-size-fits-all.” There are times when wordiness is terrible, and there are times when the extra wordiness helps the writing along, or adds color. I try to not forget about those suggestions, but not follow them. I find sticking too close to those rules results in, surprisingly enough, boring and formulaic writing. I can see it in my stuff when I go back “Oh, this {scene/chapter/blog post/article} was one of the ones I trimmed…”

    On the other side, though, it’s cool when you cut a good but unnecessary bit from something, and then have a good chunk for some other place later on.

    Love the pic. Here’s to great writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. That rule isn’t my favorite either. I’m sure it works for Stephen King (I first found this one in “On Writing”) When I’m writing, I often go careening through it with the brakes off. I go back later and add description, setting, deepen the mood, add motifs, etc. My work ends up 20% longer because of it., but it’s better for it.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I hate rules. I’ve ignored every one in my time. Sometimes they serve for a while but in general the only advice that’s helped consistently is ‘don’t give up’.
    Btw I hope you don’t mind me giving a quick plug here: my partner is a SF author whose book has just been published by GAILE:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I’ll be sure to check that out.

      I definitely agree that these sorts of rules can serve us well for a time. I definitely was too wordy in my writing at one point. But once the lesson has been learned, it’s time to move on.

      Liked by 1 person

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