? 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.