The Twelve Rules of Writing


The Internet is a superb resource for writers.  With a little effort you can find hundreds of sites with advice on what to write and how to go about it.  You can end up being overwhelmed, though, by the plethora of different views and approaches.

Helpfully, I have condensed the entire Internet into these handy Twelve Rules for Successful Writing:

1. Write what you know

In order for readers to engage in what you are writing and be drawn into the story, your writing must be authentic and genuine. You must therefore write about what you already know. There’s no point in researching stuff that you don’t know about, since that will immediately appear false to your readers. Stick to safe ground and it will save you a lot of effort.

As a side-effect of this, obviously science fiction and fantasy are not proper writing as you cannot possibly know about things you only imagined in the first place.

2. Spelling and grammer are what copy editors are for.

Clearly, as a creative person, you do not want to be burdened with the task of spelling things correctly or constructing sentences that are grammatically correct.  This is, after all, what copy editors are for and you will be depriving them of their livelihood if you do their job for them.

3. Words are interchangeable, it’s what you mean that’s important.

The English language was created to mislead you.  Take the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  Clearly, the word ‘right’ is misspelled, since ‘write’ goes with ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ should be paired with ‘left’.

Also, ‘their’, ‘they’re’ and ‘there’ should be synonymous and interchangeable.  Feel free to impose your own logic on the language as many people have before you.

4. Characters must be three dimensional

Creating characters is difficult enough, but you must also make them three dimensional by describing them in excruciating detail. In order for your readers to be able to picture your character in 3D, they must know what underwear they have chosen and whether they floss their teeth.  It may help if you can get your readers to wear those cardboard spectacles with red and green filters.

5. Develop a writer’s voice

In order to be a successful writer you will need to develop a style which is distinctive and immediately identifiable.  To help develop your writer’s voice, try doing impressions of other writers.  YouTube is great for this as you can download clips of writers and imitate their speech patterns.  Once you have the hang of it, you can try developing your own voice.

6. Write for all five senses

Some writers make the mistake of only writing for the visual sense.  In order to increase the depth of your writing you need to engage the other senses too, so when you are writing about a particularly romantic sunset, you will need to explain how it smells and tastes, as well as how it looks.  If you are writing about a sunset and you don’t know how a sunset tastes, you have already broken rule 1.

7. Start with short stories before graduating to novel-length pieces

There is no point in trying to write a novel before mastering the short story.  As John Steinbeck said: ~

“I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances..”

If Mr Steinbeck isn’t ready to write a novel then you certainly aren’t.

8. Word-count is important.

Only books with specific numbers of words ever get published.  This is why many books never see the light of day.  Once a word-count has been used, though, it can’t be re-used, which is why books are different lengths. The exact number of words required is a secret of the industry and is only known by editors and publishers, which is why they are often published authors in their own right, as they know what number comes next.

Try counting the words in recently published books to try and guess the next number in the sequence.

9. How should I deal with exposition?

Here the old ways are best, I’m afraid.  First tell them what you’re going to tell them.  Then tell them.  Then tell them what you’ve told them.  If they haven’t got it by then they should be reading something simpler.

But isn’t the rule: Show, Don’t Tell, I hear you ask? A simple question: do you tell a story or show it? Showing is for dogs and horses.

10. Which point of view should I adopt?

This depends on genre.  If you’re writing pornography or recipe books then second person present is what you’re looking for. If you’ve chosen science fiction you need to write in the future tense and if it’s historical fiction you need the past-imperfect.  First person present is essentially for the psychologically disturbed and third person is for insurance policies.

11. Do I need to outline my story or just write it?

That depends.  If you already have a detailed outline in your head, then you don’t need to outline it.  If, on the other hand, you have no plot or structure then you need to outline the plot you don’t have. It’s easy, just indent every other sentence until it makes sense.

12. When’s the best time to submit my work to an agent or publisher?

Straight away! Agents and publishers are notoriously slow in responding and generally spend their time having lunch or reading books that are already published.  By submitting your work before it’s finished you get ahead of the queue and don’t waste time waiting for a response.

Make sure you include critique from your Mum – no-one knows you better – and don’t worry about those pesky submission guidelines. They’re only there for the clueless and you don’t want to be one of those, do you?

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  1. #1 by Mike on October 6, 2010 - 4:11 pm

    Hi Kai, Yes they are. Maybe I should get some polarised contact lenses and then I could see the whole world in 3D?

  2. #2 by vickey malone kennedy on October 6, 2010 - 2:54 pm

    Har, har, har. Very funny, Dr Jones, very funny.

  3. #3 by Kai Savage on October 6, 2010 - 2:38 pm

    Finally a set of really useful (and totally never-to-be-disputed) rules that will allow every person to create a masterpiece best-seller.

    Just one thing Mike, 3D specs are polarised nowadays… tsk!

  4. #4 by Nazareen Ebrahim on October 4, 2010 - 12:50 pm

    This is absolutely brilliant! I laughed myself crazy going through list. Well done and well said! You can’t be too sure sometimes and should just jump straight into the cauldron of your bubbling mind :) Loved this piece.

  5. #5 by MEG on October 4, 2010 - 12:28 pm

    At last I have a definitive set of rules to use when I decide to become a writer. Thank you for the inspiration to quit my job and do something more creative.

    Also, ‘their’, ‘they’re’ and ‘there’ should be synonymous and interchangeable.

    Not forgetting “though” and “through”.

  6. #6 by Mike on October 4, 2010 - 11:55 am

    The plots you haven’t thought up yet are always the best ones! :-)

  7. #7 by Anne Lyle on October 4, 2010 - 11:33 am

    Thanks for cheering up my Monday morning, Mike! Or not – clearly I need to go back to the drawing board and forget all this historical fantasy novel nonsense.

    Mind you, I am currently trying to outline a plot I haven’t thought up yet, so there may be hope for me yet…

  8. #8 by Patrick Rose on October 4, 2010 - 11:05 am

    You know what’s funny? That’s how I write.

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