Few professions are as solitary yet as full of advice as writing. You do it alone, usually, but everyone you meet is an expert in what writers do, don’t do, should do, always do, never do, can’t do… Even Anne Rice, who shares her thoughts about rules below, once noted that her doctor advised her to change the title of Interview with the Vampire, to which her son, author Christopher Rice, quipped, “And he went on to write 23 bestsellers.”
Being that writing is such a strange job, if there are rules, they should come from those who do the job, too. Here, 20 bestselling classic and contemporary storytellers share their rules for writers. To kick things off, let’s use this shiny gem of good advice from Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay: “Ignore all of this as you see fit.”
1. Elmore Leonard for The New York Times:
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
2. R. L. Stine at ThrillerFest 2014:
I write for kids, and I think there are definitely rules for when you write for kids. People are always asking me, “How do you know how not to go too far?” And I have one rule that I always follow seriously, and that rule is that the kid has to know it’s not real. I keep the real world out. The kid has to know that it’s a creepy fantasy and it isn’t something that can happen. And then I feel like I can do the story, because the kid knows that it’s just a story and they’re safe in their rooms reading it.
3. Margaret Atwood for The Guardian:
You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
4. William Faulkner to an American fiction class:
I would say to get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says. It’s the ingestion and then the gestation. You’ve got to know the character. You’ve got to believe in him. You’ve got to feel that he is alive, and then, of course, you will have to do a certain amount of picking and choosing among the possibilities of his action, so that his actions fit the character which you believe in. After that, the business of putting him down on paper is mechanical.
5. Zadie Smith via Brain Pickings:
Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.
6. Scott Turow at ThrillerFest 2014:
I think that you must be aware of the existing conventions. … That does not mean that you cannot reinvent them in your own way.
7. Jonathan Franzen for The Guardian:
Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.
8. Anne Rice at ThrillerFest 2014:
I don’t think there are any universal rules. I really don’t. We each make our own rules, and we stick to our rules and we abide by them, but you know rules are made to be broken. … [If] any rule you hear from one writer doesn’t work for you, disregard it completely. Break it. Do what you want to do. I have my own rules that I follow, but they’re not necessarily going to work for other writers. … The only universal rule is to write. Get it done, and do what works for you. There’s nothing sadder than someone sitting there and trying to apply a lot of rules that are not turning that person on and are not stimulating and are not making a novel.
9. Kurt Vonnegut, from his short story “Bagumbo Snuff Box”:
Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
10. Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats via io9:
Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
11. Neil Gaiman via Brain Pickings:
The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
12. Alice Walker in an interview with Writer’s Digest:
[Y]ou have a right to express what you see and what you feel and what you think. To be bold. To be as bold with your vision as you can possibly be. Our salvation, to the extent that we have one, will come out of people realizing the crisis of our species and of the planet and offering their deepest dream of what’s possible.
13. Ernest Hemingway for Esquire, 1935:
When I was writing, it was necessary for me to read after I had written. If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing you were writing before you could go on with it the next day. … I had learned already never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.
14. Dave Barry in an interview:
Don’t be boring. [N]othing else that we try to do in journalism will work, if people don’t read it. … What readers know is that they could also watch television, or go outside, or just put the paper down. So it’s really important to keep them reading you. And I think that should be the most important rule.
15. Eudora Welty, from “Place in Fiction“:
One can no more say, “To write stay home,” than one can say, “To write leave home.” It is the writing that makes its own rules and conditions for each person.
16. John Steinbeck for The Paris Review, 1975:
Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
17. From Henry Miller’s stringent daily routine:
Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.
18. Rainbow Rowell for novelicious:
Don’t worry even a little bit whether your book is on trend. All the trends will be trending differently by the time you get published, so it’s pointless to overthink it while you’re writing.
19. Annie Dillard, from her book The Writing Life:
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. 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. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.
20. Joyce Carol Oates via Twitter:
Best tip for writers: not to listen to any silly tips for writers.
Adrienne Crezo is the managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine. Follow her on Twitter @a_crezo