Rules. Love them or hate them, we all live by at least one of them, even if that one rule is “Don’t follow the rules.” Writers are not exempt from this fact; in fact, we seem to be borderline obsessed with them, possibly because they offer some semblance of logic in an otherwise illogical field (after all, if we were purely logical people, we wouldn’t have become writers!). What’s more, not only do we like coming up with rules about the writing process, but we (rather appropriately) write them down and share them with writers and non-writers alike.
Now, writers have always been sharing their personal rules of writing. George Orwell, for instance, famously published his 6 rules for writing in “Politics and the English Language,” which included things like “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print” and “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” But ever since Elmore Leonard published his famous list “Ten Rules of Writing”, writers have been coming out from behind their writing desks in droves to add their two cents about the Dos and Don’ts of writing. You can find them all over the Internet, but my personal favorite compilation was the two-part collection published by the Guardian back in 2010.
The list includes rules submitted by numerous well-established writers, including favorites like Jonathan Franzen, Hilary Mantel, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, and Zadie Smith, among others. The rules range from fairly straight froward (“Decide when in the day (or night) it best suits you to write, and organise your life accordingly.”-Andrew Motion) to downright kooky (“Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.”-Margaret Atwood), but all offer useful food for thought for writers just starting out and established writers alike.
Here are some of the ones that line up with my own writing rules, along with some that I have now added to my personal list (and more than a few that I thought were just plain cool):
- “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite.”-Elmore Leonard
- “Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out – they can be got right only by ear).”-Diana Athill
- “Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.”-Helen Dunmore
- “Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary.”-Geoff Dyer
- “Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.”-Richard Ford
- “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.”-Jonathan Franzen
- “Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.”-Esther Freud
- “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.”-Neil Gaiman
- “Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.”-Al Kennedy
- “If you have a good story idea, don’t assume it must form a prose narrative. It may work better as a play, a screenplay or a poem. Be flexible.”-Hilary Mantel
- “It is the gestation time which counts.”-Michael Morpurgo
- “Unless you are writing something very avant-garde – all gnarled, snarled and “obscure” – be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.”-Joyce Carol Oates
- “Have a story worth telling.”-Ian Rankin
- “Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.”-Will Self
- “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”-Zadie Smith
- “Never begin the book when you feel you want to begin it, but hold off a while longer.”-Rose Tremain
- “Have fun.”-Anne Enright
There are literally dozens more, so be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 for the rest of this collection. Now, I’ll finish this off by leaving you with one final rule, which is arguably the most important rule of all: