rules for writers: meant to be broken

Posted by Daniela Elza on Apr 06 2010

Dethe sent me Ten Rules for Writing Fiction from the A lot of the rules are good for whatever kind of writing you are doing. It is a bit lengthy to read through the whole at once. But who said you should read it all at once. Here, I picked a smattering of them. Yet, what seems to come up over and over is that rules are meant to serve your work, and hence are to be broken and re-created. So there are lots of rules and no rules at all. Follow what you feel is true and you will fit within the rules and also be the exception.

Elmore Leonard

  • 5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
  • 9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
  • 10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.
  • My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Margaret Atwood

  • 6. 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.

Roddy Doyle

  • 2. Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph –

Helen Dunmore

  • 7. A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.
  • 9. Don’t worry about posterity – as Larkin (no sentimentalist) observed “What will survive of us is love”.

Anne Enright

  • 10. Remember, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not ­counting weekends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper, but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.

Jonathan Franzen

  • 10. You have to love before you can be relentless.

Esther Freud

  • 4. Find your best time of the day for writing and write. Don’t let anything else interfere. Afterwards it won’t matter to you that the kitchen is a mess.
  • 5. Don’t wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key.
  • 7. Never forget, even your own rules are there to be broken.

Neil Gaiman

  • 5. 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.
  • 8. 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.

David Hare

  • 3. Style is the art of getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it.

PD James

  • 3. Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.
  • 4. Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.
  • 5. Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other ­people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.

AL Kennedy

  • 10. Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.

Hilary Mantel

  • 3. Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.

Michael Moorcock

  • 10. Ignore all proferred rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.

Andrew Motion

  • 1. Decide when in the day (or night) it best suits you to write, and organise your life accordingly.
  • 2. Think with your senses as well as your brain.
  • 3. Honour the miraculousness of the ordinary.

Joyce Carol Oates

  • 2. Don’t try to anticipate an “ideal reader” – except for yourself perhaps, sometime in the future.
  • 7. Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.

Philip Pullman

  • My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work.

Ian Rankin

  • 4. Learn what criticism to accept.

Will Self

  • 5. You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.

Zadie Smith

  • 8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

Rose Tremain

  • 1. Forget the boring old dictum “write about what you know”. Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that’s going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that.

Jeanette Winterson

  • 1. Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.
  • 2. Never stop when you are stuck. You may not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. Do not stop altogether.
  • 3. Love what you do.
  • 9. Trust your creativity.

2 Responses to “rules for writers: meant to be broken”

  1. RobTaylor Says:

    My favourite is Gaiman’s #5. Thanks for these!

  2. Daniela Elza Says:

    Yes, that one for sure has a lot packed into it. It takes me to that moment when we know something is wrong, but can’t quite put our finger on it. I am curious about this radar people have.