Rules for writers, from writers.
One of the first blog posts I wrote on secretGeek was "How to write a novel". This was an entirely tongue in cheek article with advice on what not to do. A lot of people read it, and it was linked from Wikipedia for a while. But eventually their standards improved and history left me behind.
The following are tips from real writers. They quality of the tips is varied.
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.
- Never open a book with the weather.
- Avoid prologues.
- Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
- Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said."
- Keep your exclamation points under control.
- Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
- Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language.
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.
- Use short sentences.
- Use short first paragraphs.
- Use vigorous English.
- Be positive, not negative.
- Discard 99% of what you write
- To get started, write one true sentence.
- Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next.
- Never think about the story when you're not working.
- When it's time to work again, always start by reading what you've written so far.
- Don't describe an emotion--make it.
- Use a pencil.
- Be Brief.
- Work on one thing at a time until finished.
- Start no more new books, add no more new material to "Black Spring."
- Don't be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
- Work according to the program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
- When you can't create you can work.
- Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
- Keep human! See people; go places, drink if you feel like it.
- Don't be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
- Discard the Program when you feel like it–but go back to it the next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
- Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
- Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.
- Don't start out writing novels. (Write lots of short stories)
- You may love 'em, but you can't be 'em. (re: your writing heroes)
- Examine "quality" short stories.
- Stuff your head.
- Get rid of friends who don't believe in you.
- Live in the library.
- Fall in love with movies.
- Write with joy.
- Don't plan on making money.
- List ten things you love, and ten things you hate.
- Just type any old thing that comes into your head.
- Remember, with writing, what you're looking for is just one person to come up and tell you, "I love you for what you do."
(Margaret Atwood is a great writer but I sense she wrote out this list just to please a journalist friend. It's still better advice than 99.99% of people could give.)
- Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can't sharpen it on the plane, because you can't take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
- If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
- Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
- If you're using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.
- Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
- Hold the reader's attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don't know who the reader is, so it's like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
- You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there's no free lunch. Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you're on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine.
- You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You've been backstage. You've seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
- Don't sit down in the middle of the woods. If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
- Prayer might work. Or reading something else. Or a constant visualization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book
- When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
- When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
- Don't romanticise your 'vocation.' You can either write good sentences or you can't. There is no 'writer's lifestyle.' All that matters is what you leave on the page.
- Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can't do aren't worth doing. Don't mask self-doubt with contempt.
- Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
- Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won't make your writing any better than it is.
- Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.
- Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
- Don't confuse honours with achievement.
- Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.
- Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
- Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
- Put it aside. Read it pretending you've never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
- Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
- Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
- Laugh at your own jokes.
- The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
- When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.
- Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.
- The adverb is not your friend.
- Avoid adverbs, especially after "he said" and "she said."
- The object of fiction isn't grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.
- I'm convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.
- If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write.
- If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.
- TV--while working out or anywhere else--really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.
- The first draft of a book--even a long one--should take no more than three months, the length of a season.
- Stay physically healthy, and stay married.
- Whether it's a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like 'The Lord of the Rings,' the work is always accomplished one word at a time.
- There should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with.
- One cannot imitate a writer's approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what that writer is doing may seem.
- Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer's job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.
- You'll find reading your book over after a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.
- (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings.)
- Background research: Remember that word 'back'? That's where the research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it.
- You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.
- Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.
TODO: Get a better list from On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Bonus "Writer" — Pixar
- You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
- You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
- Trying for theme is important, but you won't see what the story is actually about til you're at the end of it. Now rewrite.
- Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
- Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
- What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
- Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
- Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
- When you're stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
- Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you've got to recognize it before you can use it.
- Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone.
- Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
- Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it's poison to the audience.
- Why must you tell THIS story? What's the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That's the heart of it.
- If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
- What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don't succeed? Stack the odds against.
- No work is ever wasted. If it's not working, let go and move on - it'll come back around to be useful later.
- You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
- Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
- Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d'you rearrange them into what you DO like?
- You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can't just write ‘cool'. What would make YOU act that way?
- What's the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
Other external links
- Cory Doctorow: Rules for Writers
- Turkey City Lexicon – A Primer for SF Workshops — an extensive (and enjoyable) list of things not to do
- Making prose poetic
- How to write a novel
- 50 writing tools (a list of rules from Roy Peter Clark)
- The "Writing" category at sg wiki