My Rules for Writing

Outlaw photographer captured when his camera ran out of film

My Rules for Writing

  1. Brevity is the soul of wit – If you can say it in one page, don’t write ten. As a writer, the greatest gift you can receive is the blessing of your reader’s time. Don’t waste it.
  2. Avoid adjectives – You don’t need to say “very terrible.” Terrible is terrible.
  3. Use accessible vocabulary – Using words your readers don’t know will make them feel stupid, and that will not endear you to your reader.
  4. Write clean sentence structure – Read “The Old Man and the Sea” by Hemmingway. Pay attention to the grammar and write clear sentences.
  5. Write from the gut – Write first from where you are. What puts the fire in your belly? What are you desiring, fearing, hoping for, pissed off about, etc.?
  6. Read your work aloud – You will be surprised at what this simple trick will do for you. You can hear the music of your words and you can hear it when it gets flat and awkward. This also helps you to find mistakes.
  7. Edit ruthlessly – Ask of every single line and every word if it is necessary to make the piece work. If not, cut it. Double check for mistakes – misspellings, typos, bad grammar and verb tenses – because mistakes break the reader’s “fictional dream.” They distract the reader from the flow of ideas that you have worked so hard to create.
  8. Practice makes perfect – Pretend you are a piano player. If you have ever tried to learn a musical instrument, you will know that practicing every day is the key to making progress. Writing works the same way.
  9. Write to your audience – Know who your audience is and write to them almost as if you are having a conversation and telling a wild story to some friends.
  10. Show, don’t tell – Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Paint pictures in the air. Tell stories rather than lecturing. Engage all the senses. Humor and irony are magic.
  11. Use the active voice – Passive voice is to be avoided unless you wish to find yourself writing torturously convoluted sentences like this. “He sat on a park bench,” is better than “He found himself sitting on a park bench” unless your hero has just emerged from a coma.
  12. Break all the rules – You can break any rule for effect as long as you know why you are breaking the rule. If you never break any of the rules You. Are. Playing. It. Too. Safe.

I hope you noticed that I titled this piece “My Rules for Writing.” There are reasons that I didn’t call it “Your Rules for Writing.” First, I’m not a presumptuous asshole. Second, what works for you may be very different from what works for me. These are the stylistic guides I try to keep in mind when I’m writing.

If I had to leave you with one thought on this subject it would be this: the gift of another person’s attention is a precious thing, whether it be listening to you speak or reading your words. If you treat that gift with the respect it deserves, you’ll do all right.

6 comments

  1. I like your rules. I am a follower of 5, 6, and 7. Especially 7:). I read my work over and over until I’m sure the edges are sanded down.

    The only rule I would interpret loosely is 3 – Use accessible vocabulary. While pelting the reader with a deluge of archaic synonyms might make a reader think the writer is a pompous jerk, I do like being challenged by a new word used in the right context.

    Like

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