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Chapter 2

Rules for Writers


I began reading science fiction for enjoyment in 1956, at the age of ten.  For the next 18 years I read voraciously in a variety of fields, but science fiction was always my first love. Then, in 1974, something happened.  I began to enjoy my reading less and less.  The things I read began to irritate me.  I could no longer willingly suspend my disbelief.  I kept catching the authors in mistakes, or in what I considered to be poorly executed passages in their stories and books.  I bored the people around me by telling them how much better the stories would have been if the author had just . . .

In other words, I was feeling the first stirrings of the urge to write myself.

Nearly every writer will tell you the same.  You know someone is coming down with the writing bug when they begin to carp and criticize everything they read.  Generally, this phase ends with the poor victim throwing a book or magazine across the room and yelling loudly, ďAny idiot can write better than this!Ē

Itís a scary feeling the first time you realize that you might possibly be able to compete with the masters whom you have enjoyed reading all those years.  The feeling is similar to when you first tried to dance. You watched others gyrate the night away, you saw how they moved their arms and legs in time to the music, but your brain just wasnít sure how to start everything flapping in the proper rhythm.

I toyed seriously with the idea of becoming a writer throughout the spring of 1974.  Iím not sure what set me to thinking along those lines, but I remember clearly the event that convinced me that I ought to try my luck.  Analog Science Fiction magazine printed the text of a speech that Robert Heinlein gave at the Naval Academy in 1973.  Robert Heinlein was the greatest science fiction writer who ever lived (even his enemies agree on that).  He was a graduate of Annapolis whose naval career was shortened by tuberculosis.  The subject of Mr. Heinleinís speech was what it takes to be a writer.  I read the article with great interest, comparing his requirements for writers with my own experience.  To my surprise, I found that I met many of the qualifications.

It was in his Annapolis speech that Mr. Heinlein listed his four rules for being a successful writer:

Robert Heinleinís Rules for Writers

First, you must write!

Second, you must submit what you write.

Third, you must never rewrite except to editorial prescription.

Fourth, you must continue doing this until you are successful.


Like all great wisdom, the rules are remarkably simple, but also very subtle.  Letís take them one at a time and explore the ramifications of each:

You Must Write!

There are probably fewer than 10,000 professional writers in the entire world.  This is a remarkable statistic when you consider that virtually everyone alive sooner or later gets the urge to write.  The primary reason that very few people are writers (compared to the huge number who would like to be) lies in a violation of Heinleinís First Rule.  Quite simply, having the desire to be a writer isnít enough.  To be a writer, you must sit down and actually write!  Fully 99% of those who think they might want to write one day never do. They talk endlessly about writing the great American novel, but they never manage to commit even a single word to paper.

ďI donít know how!Ē you say.  ďI havenít taken any courses in it.  Someone has to teach me.Ē

Iím sorry, but nothing could be more wrong.  There are classes that can educate you about writing, but there are none that teach you how to write.  If the point seems excessively subtle, then consider what it takes to be a painter.  All of the art classes in the world wonít help if you donít have an aptitude for painting.  The same is true for writing, and for the same reason.

Writing is an art, not a science.  There are quite a number of techniques that will make you a better writer, but telling a story is something for which you must have an innate feel.

If you have a basic aptitude for stringing words together, then you can sharpen your technique by reading voraciously and writing voluminously.  However, no one can really teach you the technique out of a book.  The sad truth is that successful writers donít really know how they do it.  That is why you so often see a movie that clicks with the public and makes hundreds of millions of dollars, immediately followed by a sequel that is so bad that it dies at the box office.  Often, the same screenwriter writes both the original and the sequel.  So how come he couldnít produce a blockbuster the second time?  Because he doesnít know how he did it the first time. He sat for long hours in front of typewriter or computer screen and worked on the plot until the elements just sort of fell into place.   Almost any author who has written a masterpiece would give his right arm to be able to do it again.  This is why so many writers turn out to be one-book sensations.  (Joseph Heller, Catch 22, comes immediately to mind.)

In the same article in which he promulgated his four rules for writing, Robert Heinlein also commented that ďCreative writing classes have ruined more writers than anything else I know.Ē  In other words, itís a skill that can be learned, but not one that can be taught.

Donít let me discourage you from taking creative writing courses.  Just remember that they are no substitute for actually writing.  The one thing all successful writers have in common is the ability to make the words flow smoothly, and it takes a lot of practice to learn how to do that. The rule of thumb is that you have to write a million words before you write the first word that sells.

In my case, I knew I couldnít possibly write a story.  Instead of writing a story, I set out to fake writing a story.  That is, since it was a skill I knew I couldnít possibly master, I decided to counterfeit a short story.  So, beginning on July 15, 1974, I typed my counterfeit story, ďMorrisonís Mountain.Ē  Six weeks later, when I had written 7500 words, I discovered that my fake short story sounded just like the real thing!

It wasnít of professional quality, of course.  I was too inexperienced for that.  The narrative was choppy, the subject matter was too lightweight, and the punctuation was poor, but at least it had the feel of a real work of fiction.

The night I finally finished, I had a revelation.  I discovered that writing a story was mostly a matter of putting one word down after the other, and doing so in the same way as all those stories Iíd read.  Even though I started out to fake a story, what I had actually produced was a primitive, but very real, piece of fiction.

Having discovered that I could write, I set out to prove that I was better than those I had criticized so often.  Three and a half years and 20 attempts later, I finally became adept enough to actually sell a story.  (My first published piece of fiction, ďDuty, Honor, Planet,Ē is available for free download from Sci Fi - Arizona.)

You Must Submit What You Write

An interesting phenomenon occurs after youíve agonized for dozens of hours over a story or article.  What started out as merely a collection of words has suddenly taken on a life of its own.  It has become your baby!  And like most parents, you are very protective of your newborn offspring, so much so that it will break your heart if anyone criticizes it.  So, rather than send it to an editor and risk rejection, you put it in the drawer and never show it to anyone but your family and a few close friends.  They, of course, tell you how talented a writer you are.

Sorry, but it doesnít work that way.  It does no good to have your deathless prose parked in a drawer in your desk.  It doesnít count unless strangers read your work.  After all, they arenít related to you.  In fact, you canít claim to be a professional writer until someone has actually paid money to read your work!  If you are going to be a writer, then you must suffer the slings and arrows of rejection.  No one likes to be rejected; there just isnít any other way to get into the business.

So, when you have produced the best piece of writing you can, you must stuff it into an envelope (donít forget to include the self-addressed-stamped-envelope for the inevitable rejection), and mail it to someone who might actually buy your words from you.

That someone is called an editor.  Editors are very busy people who get tired of reading manuscripts in the slush pile.  But they also have magazines or books to fill with prose.  This makes them desperate to find people who can write.  So, despite your fear that an editor will reject your work, there is always the slim possibility that they will buy your submission.  They certainly arenít going to buy it if you donít send it in.

You Must Never Rewrite Except To Editorial Prescription

One must be careful about Heinleinís Third Rule for Writers.  Itís dangerous!  By not understanding its proper application, I put back the date of my first professional sale by one full year.

As Heinlein pointed out in his speech to the midshipmen, a writerís only capital is his or her time.  The number of words you can write in a lifetime is finite.  For some of us, that total is relatively low, while for others (such as Isaac Asimov), the words flow copiously for decades.  Whether you write quickly or slowly, however, each day that passes is a day you can never recover.  So donít waste your days going over something you have already finished.  Retracing old steps is wasteful. Once a story or article is done, mail it out, start another one, and donít look back Ė unless an editor asks you to, of course.

Writing new words is hard work, but polishing old words is fairly easy.  This simple reality is often a trap for new writers.  They polish, and polish, and polish again, working to get everything just so!  It is a temptation that you should avoid.  Endless polishing is bad for two reasons: Not only are you wasting time that you could more profitably use in writing something new, but there is little chance that you will make your story better. 

The reason Rule Three is dangerous is that it only applies to finished works.  To say that one should not polish endlessly is not to imply that one shouldnít polish at all.  In fact, rewriting is the secret to good writing.  But like all virtues, this one can be a vice when carried to extreme.  I didnít understand this when I began to write.  I took Heinleinís rule at face value and sent my stories out before they were truly ready.

I learned to write in the days before computers.  I composed on a Smith-Corona portable typewriter, often tap-tap-tapping well past midnight.  My technique in those days was to do a rough draft of a story in manuscript format (double space, with big margins all around).  I would then go over my story and edit it with a pencil, marking out words and sections I didnít like, modifying others, rearranging sentences and paragraphs, and just basically scribbling all over the typewritten page.  I would then type the final copy from the marked up draft, making sure I had as few typographical errors as possible.  Then I would send it off with high hopes.  A few months later it would come back rejected, by which time I had another one ready to go.

My problem was that I wasnít a good enough writer to produce professional quality work with only a single draft.  In fact, I maintain that there arenít many people on Earth who can.   Because of a too rigorous application of Heinleinís Rule No. 3, I wasnít polishing my stories enough.

I eventually came to realize this and added a second draft to my working technique.  I called it ďblue typingĒ because the second draft was always typed on blue paper.  To my surprise, I sold my first stories almost immediately after adopting this new technique!

The reason a second draft is important is fairly simple.  When you start out to write a story, you really donít know how it is going to end.  Thus, the first draft is written with only the most cursory knowledge of the storyís structure.  But when you do the second draft, you have read the story and know precisely where you are headed.  Now manually retyping a manuscript is a fairly boring job that takes very little conscious thought.  And while your brain is bored, it thinks about the story.  I found myself working on passages that seemed dead, only to have my subconscious provide me with a more exciting way to say the same thing.  Often I became so excited that I couldnít retype fast enough to read the improved story as it poured out onto the paper.  Since I was now intimately familiar with the story, I often found places where I could insert hints as to future events, or set up surprises for the reader to find later.

In fact, upon finishing my second draft, I was amazed at how much better my stories read.  My fiction began to develop a professional feel.  After the second draft on blue paper, I would then go through with a pencil and edit everything a second time before doing the final draft.

The advent of word processors has largely made the multiple draft system obsolete, at least insofar as it was practiced with typewriters.  Now we find changing the words so effortless that we write everything a dozen times or more.

There comes a point in time, however, when the story is complete.  Youíve polished it the very best you can, there is nothing left to do. That is the point when Heinleinís Rule No. 3 kicks in.  Do your best, finish the story, send it out, and then forget about it.  Donít spend the next ten years trying to polish it further.  All you will end up with is a mess.

 You Must Continue Doing This Until You Are Successful

 The last rule is the most important.  You have forced yourself to sit down and write, youíve risked rejection by submitting your work to someone who might actually buy it, and despite temptation, youíve avoided doing that 103rd rewrite because it isnít necessary.  Now what do you do?  Simple.  You persevere.  Having finished one story or article, you start a second.  When you have twelve under your belt, you go for thirteen.  You keep writing and submitting, and you never give up.

The sad truth is that you can expect to collect at least 50 rejections before you become skilled enough to sell your first work.  I wish it werenít so, but wishing doesnít carry much weight in the real world.

If you want to be a writer, you must doggedly pursue your goal through all manner of adversity.  Editors are notoriously unable to see just how brilliant our work is Ö at first.  Later they become more perceptive.  (Funny how that works!)  Often the difference between a successful writer and an unsuccessful one is simply a matter of endurance. 

As Robert Heinlein told the midshipmen a quarter-century ago, if you follow his Rules for Writers long enough, you will be successful.  He guaranteed it!

So do I.


The End

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This article is Chapter 2 in The Art of Writing, Volume I.

Jump to The Art of Writing Page

Rules for Writers

So You Want To Be A Writer?

Bill Gates on E-Publishing

Security for E-Content

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Page was last edited on 12/02/07 07:33:38 PM