Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My own ten rules of writing

with 10 comments

Inspired by the example of Zadie Smith and other authors from last year’s feature in the Guardian—whose contributions range from indispensible, like Elmore Leonard’s, to irritating, like Jonathan Franzen’s—I’ve put together my own ten rules for writing fiction. I offer these up with the caveat that I’ve developed them haphazardly over time, with a lot of wrong turns along the way, and have only recently begun to incorporate most of them into my own work. And since these rules reflect only what works for me, this post is really more like a series of notes to myself. Still, I hope you’ll find them interesting, especially in comparison to your own:

  1. Write full-time if you can. For both artists and entrepreneurs, the single greatest predictor of success is whether you’ve quit your day job. And this will be much easier if you’ve already taken steps to simplify your life as much as possible.
  2. Write short stories, or even better, novelettes, for practice, but don’t forget that most of your education as a writer will come from writing novels. A novel is also more likely to get the attention of agents, publishers, and readers, even if you ultimately intend to work in some other medium.
  3. Work from an outline. If nothing else, this makes it much more likely that you’ll finish your novel, rather than abandoning it halfway through.
  4. Write an entire first draft before going back to revise, and never edit an unfinished manuscript. Remember that a bad version at least gives you something to change, and that finishing a draft, no matter how rough, is what separates a real writer from the thousands who simply want to write.
  5. Structure each scene around a clearly defined goal for the protagonist—or, even better, a series of goals defined in terms of specific actions. More than backstory, description, or interior monologue, a clear objective in each scene is what brings a character to life.
  6. If a sequence of scenes isn’t reading well, try cutting the first and/or last paragraphs of each chapter. Even better, don’t write the beginning or end of a scene at all, but jump from middle to middle.
  7. When in doubt, aim for clean, transparent, unobtrusive prose. As Robert Louis Stevenson says, all the words on a well-written page should look more or less the same.
  8. Cut all first drafts by at least ten percent, and more if possible.
  9. Learn how to generate ideas on demand: use mind maps, intentional randomness, lists. Find spare moments and use them: assign yourself small creative tasks on walks, in the shower, while shaving. Always have pen and paper on hand. And never throw anything away.
  10. Read deeply in your own genre, but also seek out books that other writers of your generation aren’t reading.

In retrospect, most of these rules are really just about good habits and productivity, which strike me as the most important qualities a writer can have. If you’re the kind of person who can write something every day for five years, while also reading widely and seeking out interesting experiences, the rest will take care of itself. In the end, the only real rule is that you can always turn bad writing into good writing, but can’t do anything with no writing at all. And if there are any rules you think I’ve forgotten, I’d love to see them in the comments.

Written by nevalalee

September 8, 2011 at 9:00 am

Posted in Books, Writing

Tagged with ,

10 Responses

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  1. Outlines are so helpful! I find if I write everything that is to happen in a story in order on paper or on a word document, I can check off each of these points so much more efficient than I could if I were writing just off the top of my head, with no outline at all.

    Sandra's Stories

    September 8, 2011 at 11:46 am

  2. Same here! And even if you put together an outine and never refer to it again, it’s nice to know that it’s there.


    September 8, 2011 at 11:49 am

  3. Indeed, indeed. : )

    Sandra's Stories

    September 8, 2011 at 1:40 pm

  4. Excellent list! #6 in particular is very interesting as I’ve never seen it spelled out like that – it’s usually something we do automatically (or least I do). :-)

    C.B. Wentworth

    September 8, 2011 at 10:10 pm

  5. For a lot of writers—including me!—it definitely needs to be spelled out. I’ve said this before, but it’s probably the most useful writing trick I know.


    September 8, 2011 at 10:54 pm

  6. Great list! #6 sounds similar to some advice that Campbell once gave to Asimov when the young Asimov was struggling with a story. He said, “If you are struggling it is almost certainly because you’ve started too early. Pick a scene later in the story and start there.” That helped Asimov and indeed, from that point on he always tried to start his scenes late and exit them as early as possible.

    Jamie Todd Rubin

    September 21, 2011 at 9:21 am

  7. It’s a great rule. In terms of bang for the buck, #6 and #8 are probably the ones that will do the most for any writer overnight. Glad you liked the list!


    September 21, 2011 at 9:27 am

  8. What a thought-provoking list! I think one of the things I had to learn early on (and am still learning, at a different level) is to pay attention to my intuition. If I read a paragraph, a sentence, or even a single word and it doesn’t feel right, ninety-nine percent of the time it isn’t. It used to be that, if I couldn’t think of a way to fix things right away, I would try to convince myself they were good enough as-is. Now, even if I can’t think of a solution, I put a mark in the text to remind me that something has to be done, that I need to keep coming back to this until inspiration strikes.

    Sharon Rawlette

    October 25, 2013 at 9:49 am

  9. This is a very good list of habits. I definitely agree with you on finishing the first draft and about using outlines. In fact, this list definitely reinforced that I’m on the right path. Thank you for sharing!


    January 21, 2015 at 12:04 pm

  10. Glad you enjoyed it!


    January 27, 2015 at 11:30 am

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