I want to talk about three rules that I hear often, but the first two work similarly so I labelled them 1a and 1b. Those are grammar rules. The last rule is one that concerns content.
Rule #1a: Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
I recently read a work that thoroughly abused this rule. The rule was curled up in a corner weeping halfway through page one and still the writer kept kicking it. The words 'and' and 'but' lost meaning as I read, which meant that when they were used properly, my eyes tended to skip right over them. Stripping a word of its meaning makes it ineffective, and in turn, it will strip the effectiveness of the story.
If you break laws wantonly, you're going to get caught and sentenced. If you're going to be a literary criminal (which all the greats were), do it with intelligence and care. Break rules like this one when it is effective. Starting a sentence with 'but', as pointed out by William Zinsser in On Writing Well, "announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is thereby primed for the change." However, do it too often and all a reader learns is not to trust a single thing you write because the next thing is sure to contradict it. In the piece I was reading, the narrator was unreliable in the worst possible way and seemed to have no idea what he or she really wanted to express. It was flat out confusing and exhausting.
Rule #1b: Never use fragments.
Ditto. Pretty much everything that applies to rule 1a applies here because beginning with a conjunction is sort of like writing a fragment. Bottom line, make sure you break these rules while still being conscious and respectful of them. That will ensure that you are committing crimes to proper effect.
Rule #2: Show, don't tell.
In college, every other professor threw this phrase around like it was the secret to literary success, but the others threw it back. The real secret with showing versus telling is balance. The reason "show, don't tell" became the adage over "strike the right balance between showing and telling" is because generally, writers are inclined to tell before they show. It's also shorter.
Much like we learned in drivers' ed, the real danger can be over-correcting. Some things need to be told. You should still watch for missed opportunities, places where you're telling when you could paint a picture instead. Action and description are often stronger than saying, for example, a character is 'sad'. That would be an ideal place to show instead of tell.
An overload of images can degrade the plot because taking the time for all that showing may stop the story from moving forward. That would be over-correcting. It's okay to say: "We met outside of a run-down neighborhood." We don't need a paragraph about the neighborhood first if it isn't going to be critical to the future action. If the characters are just going to talk briefly and go their separate ways without involving any locations in the neighborhood, then it's fine to generalize. Once again, it is all about effectiveness.
Knowing the rules is essential to getting away with breaking them. When you break rules responsibly, nobody gets hurt, especially the reader.
What writing rules do you follow or break? Share them in the comments.