Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun.” -- Mary Lou Cook

There’s an old saying that you have to know the rules before you can break them. And while I agree with that, I urge caution when it comes to internalizing the rules too much. This is especially true when it comes to writing or any other creative activity. Too often, we get stopped in our tracks, spending time wondering if it’s “okay” to say, “he growled” instead of “he said.” Or we worry that we should cut the beautiful description we just completed about the little coastal town we like to visit – we aren’t supposed to get too bogged down in details.

Rules are important. The reason you should use “said,” instead of “growled,” is because the dialogue should convey the emotion of the speaker, and words like “growled” tend to slow readers down when you want them concentrating on the dialogue and not the attributions. Still, sometimes a good “growl” or “guffaw” is wonderful.

And it’s true, today, we do tend to like our descriptive passages shorter and spaced out throughout the text – and we’ll save blaming Sesame Street or the Internet as the reason for a later time – but all of us know if we are reading a beautifully written passage that captures us in the setting, we don’t care that it goes on for several paragraphs or even pages.

I also like some action in the middle of my dialogue – often more than just the short little “beat” recommended. My character might scan the kitchen, let her eyes land on the drooping basil in the garden outside, wonder if it’s going to rain so she doesn’t have to water, and sigh in response to her sister’s last comment, after only saying a couple of words. She might even focus back into the room, notice her sister’s left eye is drooping more than her right one, and pick up a dishrag and start wiping down the refrigerator that has tiny pink handprints on it from her daughter’s earlier painting session. But, I’ll only do that if it helps establish her frame of mind or advances the story in some way.

How far we bend or break the rules depends, of course, on the genre we are writing in. Romance novels and other such genres have strict rules that must be followed, but that doesn’t mean the author doesn’t have the freedom to maneuver within those rules. In fact, sometimes, the stricter the form, the more freedom we have to play in it. And you might try to cross genres to add some spice.

What I suggest for most of us is to learn the rules, have them at the ready, and save them for the editing process. Don’t internalize them to the degree they stifle you. Instead, while writing that first draft – write too much, add too many details, create scenes that may later have to be thrown out, and please, let the old man “growl” at his best friend. The whole point is to capture everything. Then, when you are ready to take a cold, cruel look at the work, edit with your head and your gut. Follow the rules where it’s easy to, where it doesn’t harm the writing. For the other sections? Trust yourself, play with them, be an advocate for your own style and preferences. Isn’t that why you are writing in the first place – to be yourself and not a carbon copy of everyone else?