25 Rules for Writers

Yes, W. Somerset Maugham famously said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” But that hasn’t stopped many of the best and/or most famous writers in English from suggesting rules for both fiction and nonfiction. So here is a list of twenty-five of my favorite rules for writers, offered for your contemplation, consideration, and maybe even implementation:

  1. Develop craftsmanship through years of wide reading (Annie Proulx).
  2. If you want to be a writer you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot (Stephen King, On Writing).
  3. Read a lot, finding out what kind of writing turns you on, in order to develop a criterion for your own writing. And then trust it — and yourself (Rosemary Daniell).
  4. Dare to turn off the TV. After all, you are a creator, not a consumer (J. A. Patterson).
  5. Don’t be a “writer.” Be writing (William Faulkner).
  6. Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on (Louis L’Amour).
  7. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing (Henry Miller).
  8. Don’t write what you know, write toward what you want to know (Colum McCann, Letters to a Young Writer).
  9. You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children (Madeleine L’Engle).
  10. Read your written work out loud (Joanna Penn).
  11. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now (Annie Dillard).
  12. Get to the point. No throat clearing (Harold Evans).
  13. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip (Elmore Leonard).
  14. I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide (Harper Lee).
  15. Do not use semicolons. All they do is show you’ve been to college (Kurt Vonnegut).
  16. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand (Henry Miller).
  17. Everyone needs an editor (Tim Foote).
  18. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it (Zadie Smith).
  19. In composing, as a general rule, run a pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigor it will give your style (Sydney Smith).
  20. Kill the cliché (Janet Fitch).
  21. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose (Elmore Leonard).
  22. Keep it accurate, keep it clear (Ezra Pound).
  23. Either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing (Benjamin Franklin).
  24. It is perfectly okay to write garbage – as long as you edit brilliantly (C. J. Cherryh).
  25. The most valuable writing habit I have is not to answer questions about my writing habits (Christopher Morley).

40 Responses to 25 Rules for Writers

  1. John de Sousa March 14, 2018 at 5:19 am #

    Excellent list, Bob. I should print this out and frame it on the wall. All of the support for editing (17 is my fav) is the reason for all the support for relentless writing. I need to simply write. Then edit brilliantly. Thanks for the motivation.

  2. Callie Daruk March 14, 2018 at 5:37 am #

    Perfectly practical Bob; they all hit home!!!!!!!!! 😜 Seriously, these will all go up on my board.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler March 14, 2018 at 5:58 am #

      Nice going, Callie. Now you have about 300,000 words to write before your next exclamation point.

      • Karen Sargent March 14, 2018 at 7:22 am #

        Bob, my comment isn’t exactly a contribution to the conversation…but this made me laugh out loud. (Do I dare end that with an exclamation?) 🙂

  3. Judith Robl March 14, 2018 at 5:42 am #

    Bob, this is brilliant. Numbers 17 and 24 are my favorites. Writing is the basis, Editing is the excellence. But you cannot edit an empty page. Without the other 23, you have nothing. Nothing at all. Thank you! (Now I have only one exclamation point left for my next 99,999 words.)

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler March 14, 2018 at 5:59 am #

      I’m okay with the exclamation point rule, myself, Judith. But Vonnegut’s semi-colon rule is a challenge for me; he’s right, but I love semi-colons.

      • Judith Robl March 14, 2018 at 6:18 am #

        Yes, well, I just sort of “uh-huh’d” that one. I like semicolons, too. But I try to use them judiciously.

  4. Faith T McDonald March 14, 2018 at 5:44 am #

    Inspiring list! I especially like the Madeleine L’Engle quote about writing the book that wants to be written… although that might mean its difficult to find a publisher (at least in my experience).

    Also, about exclamation points. I used to tell college writing students that they get five exclamation points to use their entire life. Now, they use five in their first text of the day. I wonder if that practice will creep into prose. Here’s a link to a funny Seinfeld clip about exclamation points https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unz1CGoFVMU&t=6s

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler March 14, 2018 at 6:01 am #

      I’ Faith, you’re right (see what I did there?). There often seems to be little relationship between “the book that needs to be written” and “the book that needs to be published.” More’s the pity.

  5. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser March 14, 2018 at 6:27 am #

    Rules are not a cage, but a platform upon which we can rise higher, and see further.

    • Judith Robl March 14, 2018 at 6:32 am #

      Andrew, I love your perspective. Wonderful truth beautifully expressed. Bravo!

  6. Shirlee Abbott March 14, 2018 at 6:54 am #

    I calmly, joyously and recklessly embrace these rules. Please ignore my wild, miserable, stuck-a-rut violations.

  7. Sami A. Abrams March 14, 2018 at 7:25 am #

    Thank you! I love this list. It will be printed and put in my writing binder. #7 and #24 are my favorites.

  8. Karen Sargent March 14, 2018 at 7:29 am #

    Great list. I like #13…leave out the parts readers tend to skip. Sometimes when I sense I’m writing “the parts readers tend to skip,” I argue with myself because part of me wants to believe readers won’t skip “mine.” (Right?) Kind of like how all my backstory is surely necessary. 🙂 I hate arguing with myself.

  9. Sharon Cowen March 14, 2018 at 7:50 am #

    Ctrl P.

  10. Anne Braly March 14, 2018 at 8:26 am #

    On The 25 Rules for Writers, you’ve shared what works, and what I can put into practice today. Thanks again.

  11. Joey Rudder March 14, 2018 at 8:39 am #

    A great list, Bob. (I refrained from using my usual exclamation point. You’re welcome 😉 )

    #16 “Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand (Henry Miller).”

    #18 “Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it (Zadie Smith).

    #24 “It is perfectly okay to write garbage – as long as you edit brilliantly (C. J. Cherryh).”

    So write like a kid in a candy store and love it like crazy, eyeing all the goodies around and sampling them all. Stand, stretch, walk away to get another cup of coffee. Then come back with a surge of caffeine to accommodate the “sugar rush” and start drilling like a dentist. Did I mention I really like this list? It’s informative and yet fun! (Oops, it jumped in there.)

  12. Melony Teague March 14, 2018 at 8:44 am #

    I shall refrain from any throat clearing.

  13. Carol Ashby March 14, 2018 at 8:56 am #

    Lots of good advice here, Bob, except for number 15 about semicolons. They don’t show you’ve been to college. They show you learned proper punctuation in 7th and 8th grade.

    I’d say use them sparingly, but there are times when there is no better way to capture the nuance you want to convey than with a compound sentence using a semicolon.

  14. Nan Rinella March 14, 2018 at 10:10 am #

    Bob, this is absolutely (forgive the ly word) brilliant! I’ve learned this all the hard way—by the seat of my pants (sitting at the computer)—in 25 years of “writing” nonfiction. My first novel will launch in a couple months.

  15. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D March 14, 2018 at 10:22 am #

    Bob, great blog posting, as always. Thanks for the Rules of the Road for Writers- they are great suggestions to keep in mind. I read Stephen King’s book. As I recall, it was the best $100 I have spent in a long time.
    Thanks for being there, Bob!

    • Bob Hostetler March 14, 2018 at 10:26 am #

      $100?! I hope it was a signed, leather-bound, first edition. At least.

  16. Janine Rosche March 14, 2018 at 11:12 am #

    Doesn’t #4 contradict #2 & #3? I love reading, hearing and watching other people’s stories no matter the medium. They inspire me to create, unless they are so magnificent that they make me want to hang up my keyboard.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler March 14, 2018 at 12:16 pm #

      Could be, I guess. But watching TV strikes me as far more passive than reading, so while good screenwriting is often inspirational, no doubt, I think most writers would be better served by a house with no TV than by a house with no books. I could say more, but the Reds’ game is coming on.

  17. Kathy Sheldon Davis March 14, 2018 at 12:24 pm #

    I’m forwarding this to my newby writer friends. We initiated them yesterday, gently offering them their first critiques. #Beinspired , writers!

  18. Kathy Cheek, Devotions from the Heart March 14, 2018 at 12:40 pm #

    I am so tired of the back and forth on semicolons, somebody please make up their mind. 🙂

    Of course, give it a few years and it will change again….

  19. Carol Ashby March 14, 2018 at 1:01 pm #

    I write while my husband is watching a movie on the TV in the same room…companionable nonsilence. I’m fortunate to be one of those who can work anywhere, but your TV comment suggested another “rule” to me.

    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser has commented more than once on the value of watching the special features on a DVD where directors discuss why they chose to shoot a scene in a particular way. I do find visualizing my scenes as if they were in a movie helps me get the right beats and makes any necessary descriptive passages crisper and cleaner so they advance the action instead of distracting from it.

    So maybe Number 26 should be a quote from Andrew about watching the director’s commentaries to learn tight scene construction that can hook fast and hard. You don’t want your readers doing the equivalent of going to make a sandwich halfway through the emotional climax scene of your paper-and-ink movie.

    • Sharon Cowen March 14, 2018 at 4:15 pm #

      Thanks to both Carol and Andrew for their addition to the list. (I wanted to use an exclamation point.) I’m going to pay more attention to what directors have to say.

    • Karen Sargent March 15, 2018 at 7:27 am #

      Carol, I wish I could write while Hubby watches TV, but the older I get, the less I can block out. Deb Rainey suggested noise-cancelling headphones. I checked into a pair and need to buy them because I’d enjoy being in the same room with him while I write instead of one of us being banished to another room. As for your comment about TV/movie scenes, Deb Rainey wrote a great article about how seeing her book turned into a movie made her think about scenes differently when she writes.

  20. Tisha Martin March 14, 2018 at 10:43 pm #

    Bob, ooh, good list! Number 8 is my favorite, for I’ve always been told, “Write what you know,” but I always thought if I did only that, the writing experience may be too boring. And I love research and learning, so I add a little more depth to what I know.

  21. Norma Brumbaugh March 14, 2018 at 11:01 pm #

    Nice. Very nice. Loved #6. I’m a L. L. fan, and he’s right. We gotta jump in there at some point and put pen to paper or, should I say, fingers to keyboard. . . .

  22. Rebekah Millet March 15, 2018 at 7:09 am #

    What a fun post! Rule 10 is one I always do. It’s a killer on the throat when reading chapter after chapter aloud, but well worth it. And 15 made me chuckle, because I’d never thought of it that way 😉

  23. LK Simonds March 16, 2018 at 9:34 am #

    An avalanche of responses, as usual. Well done!

    I really enjoyed reading these. Have just finished re-reading a few chapters of Stein on Writing, in which Mr. Stein refers quite a lot to Elmore Leonard. Haven’t read anything by Mr. Leonard, and I’m thinking I’ve missed some good stuff because of it.

    Thanks again.

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