Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

What makes a good writing rule?

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William Goldman

Over the weekend, my wife attended the annual convention of the Asian American Journalists Association, which was held this year in Washington D.C. Between panels, dinners, and breaks for dim sum and karaoke, she found time for a session on longform journalism moderated by the veteran reporter Tom Huang, currently an editor at the Dallas Morning News and the faculty member overseeing the writing program at The Poynter Institute. At the end of the discussion, Huang shared an assortment of his favorite writing tips, including the following: “Try cutting your first paragraph and your last paragraph, and see what happens.” (You can find the full list on his Twitter feed, including another really good one: “Start in the middle of the action, then rewind the clock and show us how we got there.”) When my wife got home, she shared this tidbit with me, and asked, “That’s one of your own writing rules, isn’t it?” I agreed. And after a moment of reflection, I added: “You know, I think that might be my favorite writing rule of all time.”

It’s true. Which made me think, in turn, about what the writing rules I’ve found genuinely useful all have in common. I can start by describing the kind of writing rule I don’t like. We’ve heard them all before: “Show, don’t tell.” “Plot comes from character.” “Write what you know.” Such rules aren’t wrong, exactly, but they’re so general and bland that they’re close to worthless, except as motivational slogans. Most books on writing are so full of such platitudes that it’s a wonder anyone gets anything out of them at all, and whenever I skim through a writing guide to find page after page of advice like this, I get a little depressed. Writing is like getting into shape: it’s easy to say “Eat less, exercise more,” but daily discipline is founded on specifics, whether we figure them out on our own or take them from a trusted source. And in a field where vagueness rules the day—which is especially disheartening in a craft founded on concrete particulars—a rule like “Try cutting your first paragraph and your last paragraph” feels like a breath of fresh air. (Or, as David Mamet puts it in On Directing Film, “The invigorating infusion of fresh air that this direct and blunt beat brings into this discussion.”)

David Morrell

So what makes a good writing rule? Based on the above, I’d say that it includes at least three major qualities:

  1. It describes a concrete, almost mechanical action. Cutting the first and last paragraphs of a chapter or scene is about as mechanical as it gets. So is the ten percent rule that Stephen King shares in On Writing: “2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.” A robot could do it, and luckily, we’re more than robots.
  2. It’s easily implemented and easily reversed. Not every rule holds true for every situation, and your best option is often to try it out, read the result, and decide whether or not to keep the change. I’ve taken to automatically cutting the first and last paragraphs of everything I write, even if I don’t think it’ll make a difference, taking comfort in the fact that the physical action itself might show me something new and that undoing it is only a click away.
  3. It’s applicable to a wide range of situations. I first encountered this rule in the work of novelist David Morrell, who wrote First Blood, and he cites the screenwriter William Goldman as his own source. Tom Huang, as mentioned above, is a journalist. A novel, a screenplay, and a newspaper article all pose different challenges, but the fact that we see the same rule invoked in all three forms implies that it’s something uniquely powerful.

In short, my collection of ideal writing rules is something like the daliluw, the traditional lore of the Mande blacksmiths that I mentioned here the other week. As Patrick R. McNaughton writes in his book on the subject, the daliluw are “units of highly focused, very practical information…which themselves are grounded in smaller units, the bits and pieces of organic matter and other materials that derive from ‘the science of the trees.'” Just because these units are small and practical doesn’t mean they aren’t hugely valuable, and after twenty years of working seriously at writing, the good ones I’ve found can be counted on one hand. The proof, as always, is in the finished work: Morrell’s rule helped me crack the structure of The Icon Thief, and I only need to compare drafts to see how much was gained. Such rules won’t save a faulty conception or a story that is fundamentally misconceived, but they’ll often make the difference between a shapeless lump of material and something that other people will actually want to read. Writing is an utterly impractical pursuit on its highest level, which means that writers need to be ruthlessly practical on the smallest scale. And while I’d normally try to end this post with a sentence of expansive conclusion, as it turns out, I’ve already cut it.

Written by nevalalee

August 19, 2014 at 9:34 am

2 Responses

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  1. “Writing is an utterly impractical pursuit on its highest level, which means that writers need to be ruthlessly practical on the smallest scale.”

    Nicely done.


    August 22, 2014 at 12:26 am

  2. Thanks. If I have one motto for writing, that’s it.


    August 22, 2014 at 7:59 am

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