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Turning Pages: When it's good to break the writing rules

Credit: Mashable

By Jane Sullivan

Sometimes the writer doesn't need a gentle muse when facing a blank page. Sometimes the writer needs a pep talk from a coach, the kind that gets you out in the drizzly dawn doing push-ups and feeling good about it.

If that's your bag, then Catherine Deveny is your woman. The comedian and writer who describes herself as "Atheist, Feminist, Dyslexic" runs regular writing classes for her Gunnas (as in "I'm gunna write a book some day"). For her students, that day is today. And she'll do everything short of push-ups to motivate them and destroy their procrastination and fear.

Judging from the website testimonials, her Gunnas adore her. So I was intrigued to see her in action at the recent Bayside Literary Festival, talking about "The Twelve Things They Don't Tell You About Writing".

I was particularly struck by one piece of advice that was exactly the opposite of what most creative writing teachers tell their students: "You don't have to read a lot".

Everyone tells budding writers they need to read, read, read – the classics to discover what the great writers did, contemporary work to discover what's new, across genres to discover all the possibilities. While this is sound advice, it's also a huge hurdle for anyone without a literary education who wants to write and feels intimidated enough at the start.

So I can see why Deveny's advice works for any Gunnas who are put off by the thought that they have to undergo a crash course in literature. Time enough for that. And Deveny adds a very important proviso: "You need to write a lot."

The Gunnas session got me thinking about other seemingly inviolable writing advice that needs to be broken from time to time. Here are some examples of when the opposite is better:

Tell, don't show. This turns the universal mantra on its head – because there are moments when it works. Sometimes we need narrative, or exposition. It's used when the writer has to briefly convey a lot of information and it would be tedious to set it up scene by scene; or on occasion for whole books that work on the principle of the fable, or the fairy tale, where we are told a story.

Cherish your darlings. It was Arthur Quiller-Couch who urged writers to kill their darlings, which can be a good protection against pompous, flowery or self-indulgent prose. But you can get into a slash and burn habit, towards your own and others' work. In a piece for Overland, Stephen Wright says writers are always killing other people's darlings: "But what gets knifed may well be something that still hasn't taken on its full shape, something potentially unsettling trying to make itself heard, a moaning from the hold where you keep your slaves."

Copy other writers. Everyone talks about the unique voice of the writer, how special it is, how no one else can tell this story. But they don't always tell you the paradoxical truth: you can find your unique voice by copying others. Sometimes literally: novelist Steven Pressfield started out by typing pages and pages of Hemingway to get a sense of the master's pacing, his storytelling, his sentence construction and his voice. But he didn't end up writing like Hemingway. He ended up writing like Steven Pressfield.

Don't get feedback. This is a hard one for me, because I love getting feedback. But back to Catherine Deveny: "The earlier you get feedback, the more damaging it is – it dissipates your head of steam." Perhaps we could modify this to "Don't get feedback too soon".

Janesullivan.sullivan9@gmail.com