We may not need no steenkin’ rulez – but we like ’em

Is there a writer anywhere who doesn’t have some rule or rules for writing? I have a few. Elmore Leonard has a famous list of rules, and so does Kurt Vonnegut. More recently Neil Gaiman, one of my favourite writers, produced on request a list of his own. (There’s a link to all these lists and more under “Ampersand’s Writing Sites”.)

My favourite list of rules for writing, which I found in the early 1990s, is Robert Heinlein’s. Here’s that list.

Heinlein’s Rules for Writing

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

Harlan Ellison thought Rule 3 could lose the last four words, but I believe Ellison is a law unto himself.

I like this list because it’s short, pithy and easy to remember. It’s also very good advice. But what sets it apart from the other rules I’ve seen is this: it’s about writing, not about how to write.

Nowhere in these rules does Heinlein say what person to write in, whether or not adverbs should be summarily shot, or if the passive voice is a bad idea. He doesn’t talk about the reader, or about critics, technique or approach. He doesn’t even suggest that these rules will make you a better writer, a good writer, or any kind of writer but what you are.

Start as close to the end as possible? Sure. How about in medias res? Yeah, whatever. Should your character want something? Your call. Lots of description, or the bare minimum? Whatever turns your crank.

Just write. Whatever it is, just write, and finish it, and be done with it unless an editor says, “Change this”. (I’m pretty sure Heinlein’s Rule Three only applies if the editor has committed to buy the piece.) And when you’ve written it, put it out there and keep putting it out there until you sell it.

I’ve had these rules memorized for years. I frequently got stuck on Rule 2, but a gig writing to deadline for radio fixed that one. If I didn’t finish, I didn’t get paid. Now I’m in the habit of finishing what I write. I still fracture Rule 3 from time to time, but not often.

A couple of years ago I started on Rule 4; this year I’m making a dent in Rule 5. I just placed a piece that had been turned down repeatedly for two years. I didn’t think I’d ever sell it, but I kept trying, and hot damn – it sold.

Genius, it is said, is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Heinlein’s list is about the ninety-nine percent, about doing the work and keeping it out there for sale. It’s the reminder that perspiration and persistence are as important as talent.

Thanks, Mr. Heinlein.

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One Response to We may not need no steenkin’ rulez – but we like ’em

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    Heinlein was probably gripping in rule 3 about all the sci-fi authors of his day (James Blish and Poul Anderson are the most notorious) who cobbled together two or three of their short stories with various additions and called them “novels.” hehe

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