Though they’ve been around for some time, I’ve only recently discovered this set of writing rules suggested by author Robert Heinlein. When I found them, it was a game-changing moment for me. I had already been beyond excited about the prospects of taking my publishing into my own hands, and then I found these “rules.” Though I would be more inclined to call them guidelines, as I don’t really feel that any form of art or creativity should have a steadfast list of rules. In any case, my motivation and determination after familiarizing myself with the rules were sky high. Now that I’ve been able to take a little time to reflect on the rules and what they mean to me personally, I can better apply them to my writing habits.
And so, here are the rules (guidelines!) that further changed the way I approach my writing, and the way I view them.
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Heinlein’s Rules of Writing
1. You must write.
Well, now. That seems simple enough, doesn’t it? It should have been obvious to me that the only way to write and publish novels would be to… you know… write. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realized that what I was doing was avoiding writing. I would sit down during my allotted writing time and plan, or plot, or world build, or brainstorm on characters, or read over what I had written in the past, or read about writing. Sure, that’s all good, but unless I actually wrote something – produced an actual word count toward my story – none of that extra stuff was going to do me any good.
Luckily, deciding to go full indie had destroyed the anxiety and fear that had been blocking me from actually creating anything. This to me is the only real rule that every writer must follow. How can a writer expect to succeed without writing?
I’ve always had issues with allowing myself to worry about what others are going to think of my stories, and I end up dwelling on it so much that my creative process shuts down completely. The way I have to make this rule work for me is by always keeping in mind a quote from author Hugh Howey: “Write as if nobody will read it; publish as if everyone will read it.”
2. You must finish what you write.
This is another important one that has always been rough for me. I firmly believe that seeing a project through to the end (unless said project is making you absolutely miserable) is an essential part of learning to be a successful writer. Now, this is not to say that every single story you attempt must be drafted, edited, polished, and published. Some stories just aren’t meant to be. Some need more time to percolate in your mind. Some are better used as a practice story. And some are written just for us, a private story or world where we can go to play anytime we want without having to share it.
What I believe is imperative for every story a writer starts, however, is completing the first draft from beginning to end. If all you write is beginnings, never practicing middles and ends, then your craft will never be as well rounded as it needs to be. Same goes for only writing endings or random scenes and never bothering with the rest of it.
To truly get a feel for an entire story, a writer must write the entire story. That is really the only way you’ll be able to figure out what needs to be changed or rewritten, and what needs to be added or removed. Having the entire idea out there on paper (or screen!) lets your mind see the entire scope of your story, and the writer’s mind will automatically begin piecing it together properly. It’s something I think all writers can do – I truly believe we all develop this natural ability to see exactly how a story must go to be the exciting journey we want it to be. But without that completed first draft, the initial outburst of ideas for our story, I believe this ability becomes hindered and is never allowed to really bloom.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
I’ve done a lot of reading on Heinlein’s rules, and this is by far the Point that receives the most attention. There’s a lot of debate revolving around this one little statement, and I have to say that I can clearly understand the opposing opinions.
Some writers believe that the first draft is where the creative magic happens, particularly if you have learned to shut off your inner editor while writing it. They believe that the initial spark of imagination, the words that flow while writing something as raw as a rough draft, is where the story should stay. Rewriting and fiddling around with your story after this point, other than to repair glaring errors or contradictions, is only going to hurt your creativity.
Now, that is not to say that the writers on this side of the fence refrain from editing their work. In fact, I don’t recall once seeing a writer that mentioned they submitted or published immediately after the first draft. Most go on to proofread and lightly edit for spelling, grammatical, and continuity errors.
I tend toward the other side of things. While I can see the magic of the above viewpoint, I can say that for me personally this would never work. And that’s exactly why I disagree with this rule.
All the other guidelines are something that every writer must do in order to gain success. Except, perhaps, for rule #5, which I’ll mention later on. These are simple, concrete goals. “You must write. You must finish what you write. You must put the work on the market.”
But rule #3 seems out of place almost, going so far as to tell writers how to attain their goals. Every writer out there is different, and every writer has to develop their own way of doing things. Anyone can tell you that writers write and sell their work. It’s what they do. But a writer’s process is a very personal thing. Refraining from rewriting, “except to editorial order” … now, that’s a “how.” Though some writers might love this, not everyone will be successful by following this advice. Not only do some writers do the opposite, but others might even change up their process from story to story. It’s an intimate thing, a writer’s process.
I’m a firm believer that we must develop our own path through our own stories.
4. You must put the work on the market.
Yes, get it out there! Do it in the way you are most comfortable, the way that brings you the most excitement. Want to go the traditional publishing route? Send the manuscript out. If it’s rejected, send it out again immediately. Rinse, repeat, until you land the sale or an editor makes rewriting suggestions you agree with. But don’t stop writing while the manuscript is out there – get to work on the next one.
Self-publishing? Then get to work on your cover and your formatting, and publish that sucker! Forget about the fear. Just do it.
If you’re anything like me, you’re dying to find readers who love your characters and stories as much as you do. So, get those stories circulating.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.
This I agree with to a certain extent. By all means, if you’ve polished a story up all nice and shiny and you love it, make sure you get it out there. And keep it out there. If you’ve ever attempted to sell a story, you know that this part’s not easy. It’s discouraging to get continuous rejections or bad reviews, and it can shake your confidence in the story itself.
But think about it this way – if you absolutely love your story and characters, then there’s bound to be someone else out there who loves them too, right? Keep trying, and keep searching. Give your creative masterpiece a fighting chance out there in the world!
Now, here’s that “certain extent” I mentioned above. Some stories may not be ready for the world yet. It’s difficult to see what’s wrong in a novel you’ve worked so hard on. Sometimes the story should be seen by a fresh pair of eyes, whether that be an agent, editor, or reader who bought your story on Amazon. And some of those readers might just deliver the missing piece to your story’s puzzle in the form of a review or a letter of constructive criticism from an editor. When you receive the right advice, the suggestions that make sense and that resonate with you, then you’ll know what to fix.
Once you’ve fixed it, send that manuscript out again!