Creative Writing Rules from Authors: A Single Rule for Interpreting Rules

I have noticed (and you probably have too) that there are a million “writing rule” lists from authors floating around the web. From Jonathan Franzen’s harsh but probably true writing rules, to Margret Atwood’s witty and frank list (both found in this article from the Guardian), I have come across more writing tip/rule lists that I can count. Here’s the thing though: no matter how many lists I read, I can’t get enough of them.

I think the simplicity of writing rules is what makes them so appealing to me; when you read a list of rules, you might think, just for a moment, that creating good writing could be as simple as following these rules. Of course, we all know this isn’t true – good writing comes from hard work and a heck of a lot of writing (10,000 hours of writing, to be exact). But there’s still something alluring to me about learning what works for other successful writers, because there’s always a chance it might work for me too.

Although every list of writing rules I’ve come across has been slightly different, I’ve noticed that several rules show up more frequently than others. Here are 5 rules I see quite regularly (written in my own words):

1. Read anything and everything you can get your hands on.

2. Write everyday (in the morning if you can).

3. Don’t worry if your first draft sucks.

4. Read your work out loud to yourself.

5. Persevere.

I think the most important thing to remember when perusing writing rules is that not every rule will work for you (nor should it). I’ve adopted a single rule for reading rule lists. (That’s right, a rule for reading rules. What can I say, I like writing rules!)

My rule for reading writing rules is (drum roll please): Take what works for you and leave the rest.

I remember the first time I read Jonathan Franzen’s rule #8: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” Ouch. I’ve decided that rule is just not for me (although I have been much more conscious about interrupting my writing for Google searches since reading that). Even though this rule doesn’t resonate for me, I have found value in several of Jonathan’s other rules.

Here a few of my favourite writing rule lists from around the interweb. Take what you like and leave the rest!

1. Ten Rules for Writing Fiction from the Guardian: Perhaps the most comprehensive list I’ve found, the Guardian’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction has tips from 30 fiction authors, including Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, Roddy Doyle and Neil Gaiman.

2. Ernest Hemingway’s Top 5 Tips for Writing Well from CopyBlogger: I’ve been on a Hemingway kick since I read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. These tips are reminiscent of Hemingway’s writing: clear and concise.

3. 6 of the Best Writing Tips from Successful AuthorsThis Buffer App post includes rules for writing first drafts, killing cliches and writing less instead of more.

Do you read writing rule lists from authors? Are there any other rules you see time and time again? What’s your favourite writing rule?

Author: Carrie Mumford

Carrie Mumford is a writer and content manager living in Calgary, Alberta. She write short stories and non-fiction articles, and blogs about technology, editing, writing and (of course) books.

  • I like this post and agree with you. It is really interesting to read other writers rules.
    For me, the most helpful and yet difficult ones are:
    -Glue yourself to your desk chair
    – Don’t get discouraged, no matter what happens

    • Those are great rules, Patricia. I love the “glue yourself to your desk chair” – always serves as a good reminder to just get on with it and write.

  • There are certain fundamental rules that apply to all writers. Rules of language (grammar; punctuation; spelling; sentence structure) and rules of elementary story-telling (begining, middle, end; story arc; characters; dialogue, etc).

    Beyond that, writing is an art, not a science.

    Rules like the classic you mention, that you must write for 10,000 hours, or have knocked up one million words before you can write a novel, or that your first and second novel are just pratice runs, are pretty mindless assertions. It’s impossible to put a figure on these things.

    What they mean is, practice, practice, practice. Experience builds expertise and confidence. The more you write, the better you are likely to become.

    Many of the classic mantras of “how to” write are regurgitated again and again. But most are meaningless generalisations. As a creative writing tutor I’ve had to wade through many pieces by new writers who are so busy trying to follow “the rules” they forget the point is to tell a good story. Readers haven’t read the rule book. *They* don’t care!

    “You must have tension on every page is a classic.” Every single page? Be serious.

    “Show don’t tell” is another must do. Has anyone told this to the incredibly successful Dan Brown?

    “You cannot change from first to third person POV in the same novel.” Yet James Patterson, the world’s biggest-selling thriller writer, ignores this rule in just about every book he’s written.

    And the interesting thing is, as a writer I see these rules being broken and pause and think, “Hey, this isn’t right.”

    Then I return to being a reader and remind myself I don’t care. The only thing that matters is if it’s a good story.

    Lexi Revellian, the very successful UK indie author, has a great post on writing rules.

    I conclude with her rule on rules:

    “There is only one writing rule you should never, ever, break: Don’t Bore The Reader. Everything else is negotiable.”

    • Hello Mark!

      Thanks for such a thoughtful comment and for sharing Lexi’s post – she makes some great points! I think “don’t bore your reader” is a fantastic rule to follow when writing. This could also be translated into, “If you’re bored writing it, people are going to be bored reading it.”

  • I find it enormously interesting to hear how other writers approach the craft. Maybe it’s because writing is such a solitary thing, I commune with others in this way. Do they write longhand before transcribing into a computer? Do they need to listen to punk rock in order to get one word on the page? I remember reading that Hemingway used to end his writing day in the middle of a sentence. That way, when he came back to his desk the next morning, he already had momentum on his side. I thought that was a good tip.

    But you’re right – ultimately it’s about doing what works for you.

    • Hi Jacquelin!

      I too had read that Hemingway ended his writing days mid-sentence. I can see the logic in this, but it would drive me insane! What if I forgot what I was meaning to say before I started writing again the next day? I guess it just goes to support the notion that doing what’s right for you is what matters (as you said).

      Thanks for your comment!

  • Hey Carrie,

    Great post again.

    One thing that scared the hell out of me: 10,000 hours. Oh Gosh, I really need to quit my job as a systems analyst lol.

    Another thing that called my attention was this: “There is only one writing rule you should never, ever, break: Don’t Bore The Reader. Everything else is negotiable.”

    Don’t know if it’s right, anyway, it’s so consoling.

    I would just add something to the list of tips you fantastically gave us here, Carrie: I think all those tips and rules have to go along with TALENT.

    Thank you very much for the lovely and useful post again.


    • Hello Gabriel!

      Great to hear from you again! The 10,000 hours scared me too – that’s something like 20 years. But then again, writing is pretty fun (most of the time), so I won’t mind writing that long if it makes me a better writer :)

      I agree with you – there does need to be some degree of innate talent, but even more than that, I think there needs to be a willingness to work hard. You reminded me of two blog posts I’ve found really helpful:

      1) Writer Unboxed’s post “5 Things More Important Than Talent”:

      2) Nina Badzin’s post “You Will Never Publish a Word”:

      Each of these posts talks about how perseverance can be more important than talent.

      Thanks so much for your comment!

  • Carrie:
    Your list of the 5 rules(ones on top) are the best.
    Reading out loud is my most important.
    Most of my work(maybe all) is meant to elicit emotion—tears—if I read a certain scene and break up—then I know I hit gold…lol

    • Hi Jaye! It’s funny you say that – this week I noticed a tweet from Sandra Gulland (an awesome historical fiction author). She mentioned that no matter how many times she read a certain scene in her WIP, she still cried.

      You and she must be on to something!

  • I love reading writing rule lists too. And I agree that the ones on top are the best! As for the internet thing, I have mixed feelings. When my mind freezes while writing, I need to do SOMETHING to jump start it. Chances are that if that wasn’t jumping on the internet, it would be getting up and doing something that might distract me more permanently. When I hit those sticking points, though, I do try to work through them before taking a break.

    • I’m with you Hawley – I use the internet to jump start (or re-start) my writing process often. Sometimes I can’t find the exact word I’m looking for, so I open up an online thesaurus. Sometimes I want to confirm a small detail that’s holding me up. But, other times I catch myself slacking off (Twitter is the devil! ;) I’m careful to keep a close eye on my internet use while writing, or leave myself notes to follow up on later.

      Thanks for stopping by!

    • I really liked your fifth rule: “Write first, worry about how it will be received later.” I’m going to have to add that to my personal list. Thanks!

  • Hey Carrie! As a new writer, I’ve found the plethora of rules at first fascinating but after a while, terrifying! As with any art or skill, it pays to teach yourself more about your craft. But it can be so time-consuming and overwhelming it stifles my motivation to actually create something new.
    I think that’s where the Internet can be an enemy to progress – simply by consuming too much time. And if you’re lacking in self confidence (like me at the moment) you can quickly become convinced that there’s no such thing as original thought, your ideas have all been done and wouldn’t you much rather be shopping on ebay anyway?!
    (In no way do I actually believe that, but you know what I mean!)
    So I guess my rule for reading writing rules is: know when to stop!!

    • Hi Natasha,

      I definitely know what you mean – the internet can be a deep, dark time sucking hole. I’ve been trying to set boundaries for myself to limit the amount of time I spend searching aimlessly on the net so I can find a perfect balance between discovering new things and not wasting my time. It’s a never-ending battle ;)

      Thanks for dropping by, and happy writing!

  • I absolutely love writing rules lists, almost as much as I like the writing clinic in Writer’s Digest and writing prompts. As I have had a creative writing class, I have been instructed on how to write, LOL. I’ve read Anne Lamott and several other people’s techniques on writing well. The most useful things people have told me or that I’ve read about writing are pretty basic–things like use strong verbs instead of adjectives/adverbs wherever possible, no first draft is going to be perfect, and have a writing routine. The best writing advice I’ve heard is to really get to know your characters; once you know your characters, you can write them in any situation or circumstance with confidence. Knowing my characters thoroughly means that I know how they will react to whatever I throw at them. This is not to say that I’m never surprised by what ends up happening (even people we think we know inside and out can surprise us), but I feel better able to roll with the punches.

  • Wonderful post, Carrie! I think you nailed the five biggies and I love that you provide the longer lists too. Off to RT! (It’ll go out in the morning. I’m not a fan of “helping” people with a 10pm RT)

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