I don’t know about you, but I get lost easily. My GPS has saved my butt more times that I can count, but it has also led me astray. Honestly, I’m not one of those people that has blindly followed my GPS into a lake, but other people have, and I can easily see how overwhelm and focus on the wrong things can get you there.

Now, let’s do a little wiggle and a shake to substitute “GPS” for “writing craft rules.”

Yep, today is for you lovelies that have taken your book and driven it straight into the lake that your writing rules guided you to. That book is sinking, and you have no idea how on earth you managed to get there.

Now, should we all throw out our GPS because someone in Norway sank in a lake? Should we all throw out the writing rules because someone else followed them to a T and their book is nothing but a paperweight?

The answer to both questions should be a resounding no.

Instead, let’s use each with caution, and be aware of their (many) limitations. Don’t let your GPS get in the way of your common sense, and don’t let the “rules” get in the way of your story.

Don’t get me wrong here—I am an editor after all—I like rules. I love guidelines that work to tighten your prose, and I am downright giddy when the best way to fix your story is to apply a “rule.” It’s much easier than trying to explain that je ne sais quoi of why your prose doesn’t work in a certain spot. What I find, however, is that the rules get abused, and there is a great divide between true rules and little ticks that people have assumed are rules.

That’s right. Some of the rules that you’ve heard aren’t even rules, just bad advice from someone who likes to write a certain way. There are entire books based on bad advice from amateur authors. There are forums and blogs and good stories with bad writing that will easily ensnare authors and have them believe in their hokey ideas—even if the advice is gag worthy to editors, agents, publishing houses, and readers.

Beyond that, there are common misconceptions of what actually is a rule, and even the good rules don’t apply in every situation. Some self-proclaimed rules that have been ingrained in us since grade school are, in fact, nothing but writing exercises meant to work a child’s brain. Some grammar snobs attempt to enforce grammar from Latin and other languages; this grammar makes you feel hoity toity but makes no logical sense in English. Even dictionaries, style guides, and editors disagree in some areas about what is “correct.”

Before you flail your hands around and curse my name as the bearer of bad tidings, keep in mind that this can be good news. You don’t have to cut and cut until the story you started with is gone and the prose doesn’t sound anything like you. There are many ways to start a sentence—a conjunction may set it off—and, believe it or not, even adverbs and slang can find their way into a text without it spontaneously combusting. Different facets of language are there for a reason, so you will not commit a grave faux pas by using them with discretion. In other words, you can find the right rhythm and tone for your story, and you can still have it sound like “you.” You can be aware of trends, best practices, and yes, maybe even rules, but you don’t need to follow them so religiously that your book ends up drowning in them.

Say it with me: The story comes first.

Rather than having the goal of doing everything perfect and following every rule you come across, let’s change your mindset to seeing if your story is improved by the changes first. If you try to get every last piece of advice into your novel, it will never end up being written. That, my friends, would be a much more grievous offence than having a few superfluous words or a split infinitive. Please remember that the heart in your story is what will resonate with your readers.

 So don’t drive it into a lake.