Know the rules. Break the rules.

When my small publishing house is open for submissions we receive manuscripts directly from authors.* A majority of submissions are nowhere near ready for a general readership, and we tell these authors—hopefully productively and compassionately—that their books need more work. These authors sometimes turn to self-publishing, but their work is still nowhere near ready for readers. I'm certain their sales and reviews eventually reflected that.

Whether we’re writing for self-publication or for submission to an agent or publisher, most of us want to make our manuscripts the best they can be. You don’t need a degree in fine arts to write an amazing manuscript, but you do have to learn some rules and how to break them properly.

Learn The Rules

Think back on your English classes in school, when you learned about adjectives and adverbs, subject and verb agreement, pronouns, and prepositional phrases. My eyes still glaze over! It wasn’t until university that I understood just how profound an impact usage and structure have on readability.

You don’t need to know absolutely everything. Don’t go crazy and read the entire Chicago Manual of Style. There are many excellent books to help you nail the things you need to know. I’ll mention two of my favorites here.

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White is a classic and perennially praised style guide. It is short, concise and inexpensive. I recommend reading it all the way through (this should only take a couple of hours, tops) then pick it up for five minutes every day and brush up on a page or two.

I also recommend The Artful Edit, by Renni Browne and Dave King. This is an affordable paperback that has stood as a go-to guide for many fiction writers since 2004. It was a revelation to me when I first read it, and I refuse to lend out my own copy because I’m afraid it will disappear.

In The Artful Edit you’ll read not only about grammar and sentence structure, but also how to write compelling fiction. Writing can be perfectly structured and tediously boring. This book will teach you how to write so your story isn’t buried under mountains of boring grammar and structure. I suggest you read it all the way through, then pick it up frequently and read a section.

Learn How To Break The Rules

The last time you read an award-winning novel did you notice that the author didn’t follow all the rules? Why did Steinbeck start so many sentences with “And” or “But”? Also, what’s with all the commas, Margaret Atwood?

Rules are made to be broken, but you can’t disregard rules willy-nilly. There’s only one way to know how to stray from the rules like a pro, and that is to observe the pros. When you read books you discover rules the author chose to break. Keep in mind that these broken rules also survived the editors, who definitely noticed them.

Knowing the rules and breaking a few of them is part of our craft. Critically reading the work of other authors should be something of an obsession for you. Read in order to enjoy the stories and to analyze and learn. Read the genre you write and genres you don’t write. Read books considered classics and read newly published books. You can’t learn a craft without observing and learning from the work of other artisans.

Let’s get our books out to the world, and let’s make them the best they can be.

James Elliott is a writer and owner of a small publishing company in rural Utah.

*This article is published with permission. It was originally published at the Anderson Publishing Company website at