5 “Rules” That Stifle Your Writing Creativity

  1. Write by someone’s else’s schedule
  2. Obey every rule you hear or read about how to write
  3. Fix up a beautiful space for writing
  4. Write what you know
  5. Join a writing group and stick with it

Wait – aren’t those all good ideas? Yes, each one is valid. They’re all foundation blocks of my writing skills. I believe it’s true to repeat what has given you success. However, creativity is fluid and changing. If I’m a strict follower of my habits for months or years, soon there may be little or no thinking required. Not so bad sometimes, but no sparks of “What if?” Or “How about?” It’s like an acquaintance who wears the same hairdo in spite of life’s changes–loss of skin elasticity, skin tone fading, overall weight redistribution and the unstoppable chipmunk cheeks. Change your hair, girl.

My neighbor has a nocturnal desert watercolor that she painted; it was lovely. But the frame wasn’t quite right. She kept the matting but got a new frame. A new soft brown wood frame with a lighter inlaid wood created a huge change. The stars in that desert sky sparkle. Perhaps you can reframe some writing habits.

  1. Reframe “Write By Someone’s Else’s Schedule

If I write every day, at a certain time, sooner or later I’ll resent it. That’s me. I’ll find a way to avoid and perhaps not write at all. Sure, it’s good to be disciplined and have some structure but it’s got to be my choice. I do write every Tuesday, but I also write after I’ve walked around with an idea–filtering, musing over it while I Windex, wash the car, or do yoga. I might write as soon as I wake up, or watching TV, or late at night.

2. Reframe “Obey every rule you hear or read about how to write”

I’m a big believer in biblio-therapy. (Just took a break to eyeball the number of how-to books in our house. More than two hundred if my eyeballs are up to par.) Reading about writing, I’ve read incredible phrases that are posited as rules, a should, or an ought to. Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write has some vague “rules” but more than that she focused on the art of writing.

Her book made me recall what I’ve said when peoples ask, “Is your twin is a writer too?”

“She can write very well. Her art is with cloth, ribbons, thread and needle; she is a fabric artist. My medium is words. I’m an artist in writing.”

If I want to write with abandon and authenticity, I can’t always obey the “Writing Police.” Break some rules. That’s freedom and art.

3. Reframe “Fix up a beautiful space for writing”

A couple of weeks ago I realized I wasn’t doing any writing for myself. In fact I was avoiding going to my office to write. I have a beautiful office. A view of the Catalina Mountains. A spacious oak desk with a comfortable ergonomic chair so my hands are poised at the right level over my laptop. So what’s with the avoidance? I needed a change. Getting away was a sensory experience. The view from my friends’ balcony in Prescott Arizona was awe-inspiring. A vast sky with thunderclouds rumbling in the afternoon. Dick revitalized my taste buds with tortilla-wrapped eggs, bacon, green onions and a sprinkling of cheese. The Phippen Museum of Western Art had a collection entitled “By the Light of the Moon.” The title alone led to writing a rough draft that night of dancing by the light of the moon.

Visiting our friends in Goodyear and listening to Jack deliver his humorous take on just about everything had me smiling the whole time. The lingering East Coast accents of my childhood friends reactivated mine and opened up memory banks I hadn’t visited in years. There’s a high school story waiting to be told.

I can’t get away every weekend, but I can get up every day and take a walk, for an hour, or thirty minutes, or ten. I still carry my Snippets notebook and do a sensory quick write. What do I see, hear, smell, feel- both physically and emotionally?

4. Reframe “Write what you know”

When I first began writing, I was a teacher, and good at it, so I wrote a lot of essays about teaching, kids, and children’s literature. With my masters degree and next career as a counselor and public speaker, I added relationship, marriage, and family dynamics stories and essays to my portfolio–even turned some into an entire book.

But it’s a big world out there. You can move away from your comfort zone genre. Read a different genre, or go to a lecture or spend days away at a conference.

My step out of my writing comfort zone has been through improvisation and oral storytelling. As a writer I can zoom through the first draft; errors get fixed after the initial unloading. Then comes the luxury of revising, polishing, choosing the better word, eliminating the repeats. Improv class was not a step out of my comfort zone. It’s been a leap! I like to present a polished, practiced talk in a confident stance. In Improv I need to trust myself, my scene partner, develop intuition … and leap right then.

Attempting to go to a level ten with an emotion in improv showed me how my written characters are a five at best. Occasionally I’ve hit a ten in written stories–those are the ones folks have liked the most. Other writers have stepped out of their comfort zone with dancing, juggling, high wire walking, hiking, mountain biking, and skydiving. Okay, maybe a little extreme but take a step, even if it’s a baby step.

5. Reframe “Join a writing group and stick with it”

When I got serious about my writing, I heeded my father’s advice. “If you want to do something, hang out with people who are doing it successfully.” I joined the International Women’s Writing Guild, and a local writing group. Being with poets, sci-fi writers, historians, novelists, and memoirists every week taught me about genres. It also gave me a reality check on the commonality of writers’ fears and anxieties, as well as risks and successes. That was where I adopted the quote “Take your work seriously, but never yourself” – variously attributed to Margot Fonteyn and Clint Eastwood (now that’s interesting).

Just as I’ve outgrown clothes or things go out of style (remember the hair), same holds true with groups. Your needs may change. If you keep going to your writing group just for social reasons, quit.  Keep them as friends, but find a new group for writing. Check Meet Up, Facebook, community bulletin boards, libraries, bookstores.

A little bit of #1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 each day and I’m ready to BIC (Butt in chair) and write with zest, humor, audacity. How about you?

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.



  1. Nicely done! Nicely done indeed!

    • Ethel Lee-Miller

      Thank you, “Knightly.” I appreciate your comments, always.

    • Ethel Lee-Miller

      You are my best cheerleader! I appreciate the compliment.

  2. Barbara Chapman

    After reading your post I started thinking how unstructured and rule breaking my writing habits are. As a girl I didn’t enjoy dance parties where all the girls made up dance routines; I was the girl in the corner making up steps of my own. The observation about hair is interesting. My mother’s generation believed women of a certain age should wear their hair short because long hair belongs to the young or women who farmed. I wore short hair for years, but when my jawline lost its firmness, I opted for a longer bob. Vanity, thy name is Barbara. I write when I have something to say or an observation loops over and over my brain. I’m not disciplined, but I’m okay that I’m not just like I’m okay dancing alone.

  3. Ethel Lee-Miller

    Barbara, Testament to us as evolved individuals in our own right that we have differences and are okay with them. I can remember feeling constrained by “girl” expectations as a teenager. Still encounter female expectations that make me scoff (to say the least). Today I’m pretty comfortable going my own way. So I’ll wave to you doing your dance thing from my line dance. I think my group affinity is part of my twin thing- grist for the mill of another writing topic.
    Thanks for your comment.

  4. Well said! I agree. The rules help, especially when starting out, but the creative process is too fluid and evolving to be constrained to a schedule, location, or group.

    • Ethel Lee-Miller

      My lifelong challenge- variety and balance!! Also my joy- variety and balance.

  5. joanne sabates

    As I enjoyed reading through your ‘5 rules’ piece, I affirmed to myself that yes, change is good; it stimulates the brain and grows new neural pathways that promote productive and worthwhile feelings. And then, as I continued, Emily Dickinson popped into my mind, perhaps the greatest of all female poets, who was also one of the most reclusive and resistant to change. How did she do it? Her writing is full of circumstance, the changes in the day, in the natural world around us, which is never static. Who wrote about ‘seeing the world in a grain of sand’? Blake? I don’t recall, but comparing your ‘rules’ to writers such as Dickinson seems to depict a unity and variety that is relative to each individual psyche. Thank you for your interesting little piece, Ethel; it gave me pause to enjoyably sit down, think and reply.

    • Ethel Lee-Miller

      Yes, Joanne- I also think of the Bronte sisters who lived a very sheltered life and yet seemed to write with broad strokes of creativity, each in her own way. Kind of exciting to visualize the paths we can take, whether writing, acting, painting. Or interacting with people- which often calls for unique approaches.

  6. joanne sabates

    ‘Or interacting with people, which often calls for unique approaches.’ Wisely stated, Ethel; I find myself more aware of this truism as I age. Perhaps the only way to truly express oneself, to reveal the interpretations of hidden meanings, is to put words upon a page. So are writers essentially on a quest for truth? Why can’t they accept ‘things’ for what they are, superficially? Seems like all writers are somewhat tortured souls. This summer I read Alice Hoffman extensively, who interjects Magical Realism into most of her writing. Magical Realism…….couldn’t that be construed as one way in which the mind interprets reality? It is, after all, a magical thing……..

    • Ethel Lee-Miller

      The words on a page are set down both for me and any readers who deliberately or “coincidentally” come across my thoughts.Dropping words into a conversation or even responding verbally rather than reacting is not as significant (for me) as seeing my ideas in black and white, then reading them aloud to myself. It’s like the inner voice asking “Do you really mean this?” Keep sharing- I think what stays on the page from thought-full people is their quest for the truth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *