The rules of writing are…



“There are three rules for the writing of a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Somerset Maughan

When I first started to seriously consider writing as a career path, I needed rules. I wanted to know exactly how long a novel should be (give or take 50 words), whether real writers should work at home or in coffee shops, if a writer could write in multiple genres, what my daily word count should be, and so on. I wasn’t looking for tools, like plotting templates or character sheets so much as a process that would turn me into a literary great so long as I adopted it hook, line and sinker. I wasted an insane amount of time on blogs and in books trying to identify how a “proper” author behaved, often tying myself up in knots when the rules were contradictory, impossible or just downright silly.

Thing is, it seems a lot of amateur writers are just like I was, desperately seeking out a set of golden rules that will somehow magically help them become bestselling professional authors. The hard truth is that no one can tell you the three golden rules for writing, because the damn things don’t exist. They don’t even exist in a deeply personal, for-your-eyes-only format either, because everything that you write will be different.

For example, my rule for writing short stories is to fly by the seat of my pants. I can write most of my short stories in one sitting with no idea of the plot. The characters walk out of my subconscious fully formed, and I have no idea what they intend to do once they hit the page. Quality varies enormously, of course, but the process here – the rule if you will – is that I am a “pantser” who just throws words at the page and then sees where they take me.

Except when I don’t follow my rule. Except when there’s a specific concept or theme I want to write about. Except when I have to spend several weeks’ worth of commutes mulling over the details of the plot until it is crystal clear in my mind, every twist mapped out, and then characters created with deliberation and thought into every aspect of their humanity. Quality here tends to be more consistent, and yet I’m more likely to abandon the story if it won’t go the way I want it to go.

This, of course, applies to every other writing rule that I’ve tried to adopt over the last few years. Sometimes I write fearlessly, sometimes I have to wrangle every syllable down onto the page in an anxiety-ridden mess. Sometimes I write drunk and edit sober, other times I do the opposite (it’s best not to talk about the result of that experiment. Just trust Hemmingway on this one). Hell, I’ve written about what I know and also enjoyed writing about stuff I don’t. I’ve researched first, researched as I go along, and then gone back afterwards to fill in the research blanks.

The painful truth for all us new writers is that success as a writer ultimately isn’t about the process, it’s about the finished product. Agents, publishers and most importantly, our readers, couldn’t give a damn about whether we write in our pyjamas or drink scotch or spend hours torturing ourselves with sleep deprivation and caffeine abuse as a form of method-authoring. They care about the finished product. They care that your story is satisfying. Hell, in many cases they don’t even care if it was good – just that they enjoyed it.

So why do we torture ourselves by agonising over the fact our lifestyle won’t allow us to write 6000 words a day before breakfast like that successful author we read about does?

For me, it was a form of procrastination. Eventually, I realised that I was just using this research into writing techniques as an excuse not to sit down and actually write shit down. I got the smug sensation of feeling like a real writer because hello, I was learning about how to be a writer! but without having to do the heavy lifting of making good words form a coherent, satisfying story.

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly picked up some nuggets of wisdom along the way that have proven useful as I have developed as a writer, and I think I will always enjoy learning about how other word-wranglers manage to get their story out of their brains and down onto the page. I might laugh and think that writing naked is a recipe for disaster if you accidentally turn your webcam on, but if it works for them, then fantastic. Hell, I even know a number of professional writers who (shock! horror!) don’t even write every single day.

The only rule about writing that holds water is that writers have to write in order to be considered writers. Everything else is just window-dressing.


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