43 Writers’ “Rules for Writing”

Most writers have their own special “rules for writing,” even if they don’t talk about them. I find other writers’ rules fascinating, even when I don’t agree with them. A lot can be learned by reading about other authors’ approaches to writing.

The New York Times and The Guardian have published famous authors’ answers to this question on a number of occasions. The Guardian has a very long, disorganized article that collects many of the rules, which you can read here. This article is an attempt to organize that collection and to link to other authors’ rules as well, including more recently published authors’ rules on writing.

Source: » 43 Writers’ “Rules for Writing”

I’m of the same mind about this subject as author and writing coach Mark David Gerson (The Voice of the Muse). His writing mantra is There are No Rules. I agree. Rules for writing seem to me about as relevant as rules for enjoying a sunset or a kiss.

For those who, like the author of this article, find the rules of famous writers to be fascinating, this post by Emily Harstone in “Authors Publish” is the mother lode of rules. You’ll find Elmore Leonard, George Orwell, Neil Gaiman, Jack Kerouac, and even Nietzche. Nietzche’s rules begin with “Of prime necessity is life: a style should live.” I have no idea what that means.

Enjoy or be driven to drink, depending on your point of view.


Writing Fru Fru

As an author, I feel so far off the beaten track of techniques, theories, movers and shakers, and writing schools, that I must confess I have no idea what’s going on in terms of best practices and goals. Furthermore, I don’t think I care.

I subscribe to several writing magazines. Some of the material is interesting. Most of it makes my eyes glaze over. And that includes the 1000000 ads per issue about MFA programs. These ads list their faculty. I’ve never heard of 99.9% of them. Of course, they haven’t heard of me either, so that’s no a condemnation of those running the show.

My brand of heresy is that I think many writing programs kill off more students than they help. My English minor in college just about killed me. Courses in taxidermy and underwater basket weaving would have been more helpful.

Yes, I’m a rebel when it comes to how writing and literature are taught. Yet, I think most prospective writers will do much better if they are left to figure out how to find their own voice and style without prompts from a professor. Sure, there are plenty of good tips out there about practical matters.

If you want to write, then write. You alone know what interests you, what kinds of stories are haunting your dreams to be told, and how words best spill from your brain onto the printed page. It’s a natural thing. Programs and rules tend to disrupt that natural thing: writing as only you can do it.

While you may not know a dozen theories your 300- or 400-level college course wants to impart to you, you do know yourself and how you see the work you wish to do. The drummer or song or inspiration behind your work always comes from within, not somebody standing behind a lectern who says ABC is good and XYZ is bad.

I always picked XYZ and made it work as my way of mocking silly writing theories. As Mark David Gerson says in his popular writing books, “There are no rules.” Every time a guru says don’t, I can show them a successful author who did it. We always need something fresh and innovative, and sticking to ancient rules ensures we’ll never find it. Which is not to suggest we need pure chaos, though a little bit of chaos in writing can be energizing.

Good writing, I think, comes from people who thought it was more important to know themselves rather than to know the substance of an MFA program. Why? They chose life over conformity.




Top Ten Things a Writer Should Never Do

Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules for Good Writing” include Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose” and Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Savvy advice from an old pro. But suddenly, it occurs to me that there’s more to it than that.  After all, nobody wants to wistfully look back on a writing-career-that-could-have-been and be forced to admit that all hell broke loose when s/he violated one of Malcolm’s Top Ten Things a Writer Should Never Do.

  1. Never use words like “wistfully” and “forced to admit.”
  2. Do not drink cheap wine while describing successful people because, when all is said and done, your prose will end up smelling of sour grapes.
  3. Do not try to screw over the bastards who tried to screw over your writing career unless you’re pretty sure you won’t get caught because if you do get caught, you will personally be all said and done before having a chance to write your swan song.
  4. Never grab pithy quotes off the Internet from people you’ve never heard of because you might end up looking bad without knowing why all hell broke loose.
  5. Use of the passive voice is to be avoided.
  6. If you’re walking around quoting W. Somerset Maugham’s statement that “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are,” stop doing it immediately. We’re all sick of hearing it and it won’t make you look smart.
  7. Don’t believe experts who say that to produce good writing “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” Nobody uses typewriters these days and you’ll just end up with blood on your hands when the cops bust in and accuse you of causing all hell to break loose.
  8. Never say things like “I’d sell my granny’s fanny to get a good agent” because even if you don’t, people will think you did.
  9. Never kill a book reviewer without first writing yourself an airtight alibi.
  10. Never plagiarize material from writers who have already admitted that they stole most of their stuff from somebody else.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the comedy/satire “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire” and the “Jock Talks” series of scandalously inappropriate e-books.

He is forced to admit that while writing satire, you can do all the things you should never do and get away with it.