Monthly Archives: February 2010

★ Ten Rules for Writers

For this week’s Guardian Review, estab­lished authors were asked to pro­duce ten writ­ing ‘rules’. I agree with some of them and dis­agree with oth­ers. (For reas­ons best known to The Guardian, there is no web link at present for this fea­ture, des­pite links to every other art­icle in that sec­tion.) Update: James Viner points out that it is avail­able here.

Here’s one of my favour­ites from Richard Ford:

1. Marry someone you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.
2. Don’t have chil­dren.
3. Don’t read your reviews.
4. Don’t write reviews. (Your judgement’s always tain­ted.)
5. Don’t have argu­ments with your wife in the morn­ing, or late at night.
6. Don’t drink and write at the same time.
7. Don’t write let­ters to the editor. (No one cares.)
8. Don’t wish ill on your col­leagues.
9. Try to think of oth­ers’ good luck as encour­age­ment to your­self.
10. Don’t take any shit if you can pos­sibly help it.

All of these con­sti­tute advice of the very first water. I break these rules often; but I think they’re good ones.

So what would my ten rules be?

Ten Rules for Writers

1. Think of your­self as a writer

It doesn’t mat­ter if you aren’t pub­lished. It doesn’t mat­ter if you’re not sure that you’ll ever be pub­lished. By sit­ting in a chair (or stand­ing up, in my case) and tak­ing your craft ser­i­ously, you get the badge. The badge is not given to you by a pub­lisher or an agent. Nobody takes it away unless you want them to.

2. Don’t believe people who say that whether or not you can write well is determ­ined by forces out­side your control

Someone (acknow­ledge­ment to Harlan Ellison) once wrote that you can either hear the music or you can’t. This belittles the graft that goes into learn­ing to write fic­tion. Nobody is born to be a writer — unless you mean that a per­son can be born with the drive to be a great writer. It takes thou­sands of hours of effort.

3. Writing know­ledge is pre­dom­in­antly pro­ced­ural not declarative

In exper­i­mental psy­cho­logy, we make a dis­tinc­tion between memory that is pro­ced­ural — like the motor skills asso­ci­ated with play­ing the piano — and declar­at­ive — like the know­ledge of music the­ory. Writing fic­tion, I would argue, is char­ac­ter­ised by impli­cit (i.e. uncon­scious) learn­ing through the determ­ined attempt to write. That’s not to say that there are no rules to the con­struc­tion of story. It’s just that the use of those rules should be informed by a judge­ment which is itself sharpened through long hours of try­ing to get it right. Apply struc­tural rules ret­ro­act­ively, once the work is well in progress.

4. Don’t worry if you get depressed

For sev­eral reas­ons that draw on my psy­cho­logy back­ground, I would argue that, if you’re a writer, the prob­ab­il­ity of suf­fer­ing depres­sion at some point in your career is above aver­age. Do whatever you need to do to get through these periods.

5. Luck is a major factor in writ­ing success

It just is. I’ve never yet heard the suc­cess story of a writer who doesn’t start off with, ‘Well, I got lucky when…’

6. Determination is as import­ant as skill

Established writers typ­ic­ally remain estab­lished because they excel at the writ­ing pro­cess and dis­play fierce determ­in­a­tion in the face of long odds. To be good is not good enough if you want a career. Real Artists Ship. (‘Real’ means ‘pub­lished’ in this con­text; you can remain an artist without shipping.)

7. Rewrite more than you write

Get used to reheat­ing the stuff you got sick of eat­ing the day before.

8. Write true things

Fictional things are not false. They are usu­ally more true than things in real life.

9. Clichés exist at many levels; kill them all

It’s not just clichéd to write ‘The man had a face liked a smacked arse’. If the man does things that men tend to do all too often in aver­age stor­ies — avenge the death of his wife, struggle with the mundan­ity of his job — then the cliché can work its way up to higher levels. The trick to killing cliché is to con­cen­trate on the spe­cific. Never think of a char­ac­ter, or a story, as a type. Everything is a one-off.

10. Get feedback

If you learn to play ten­nis against one of those ball-firing machines instead of a part­ner, you’re not really learn­ing ten­nis, even if you’re wear­ing the McEnroe head­band and get­ting sweaty. In writ­ing, you need feed­back. But note that while feed­back on what works and what does not work should be taken ser­i­ously, com­ments about how these prob­lems can be cor­rec­ted should only be taken on board if the per­son mak­ing the com­ment is a writer. If the com­menter is a non-writer, there’s a good chance that tak­ing their advice will wound your story.