The Rules of Writing (An Ongoing List of Things)

I’ve been slowly working my way back into things in the writing realm of late. More than anything, writing is an escape, a way to make sense of life when I can’t quite seem to do it on my own. It’s a way to put onto the page things I’m not quite sure of. Today, I dusted off a story in another writing realm (sports fiction) that I’ve been working on. An alternate history type of thing — it’s just for fun and has no serious goal, other than to tell an entertaining (if not tragic) tale, one filled with drama and narratives galore (as sports is wanton to do).

I got inspired to go ahead and move forward with a major plot point I’ve been debating for months — killing off a POV character which I really, really liked. And I did it in the cheapest way possible, an off-screen death which was blindsiding and surprising all in one. I hope those who read it don’t take offense to it, but it needed to be done in order to progress the story along.

It was empowering, to say the least, and it got me thinking if I was breaking some sort of unwritten writing rule. Sports often has a list of “unwritten rules” that the players in it don’t break, for fear of shame or being blacklisted. The prime example of this would be Pete Rose, who broke baseball’s cardinal rule of gambling on his team. Rose, if you’re not familiar, was one of baseball’s greatest players but has been banned for life from it’s Hall of Fame. He broke that rule, a rule that wasn’t unwritten but a rule nonetheless.

That got me thinking. What are the rules of writing? What exactly should one do in certain spots?

Which brings me to this list of rules that I abide by but don’t necessarily expect anyone else to. Everyone writes their own way, so by all means ignore most, if not all, what I write here. But do think about how you write — examine it, analyze it, mediate on it. Looking at the process might help you identify some things that work more than others. As with anything in life, finding your strengths and weaknesses is part of getting better — if you choose to try. Which brings me to my first rule …


Rule #1: Don’t Be Afraid to Try Anything and Everything.

Try. Try it all. It sounds stupid, because you simply don’t do this in life. You don’t try food you’re allergic to (because it might kill you), you don’t try on clothes that don’t fit (because they’re either too big on you or choke you to death), and you don’t try to perform ridiculously athletic stunts if you’re prone to injury (unless someone dares you, in which case you might try and injury yourself but at least you tried).

But in writing? Try it all. Try anything and everything, write things against your natural instincts sometimes. I’m not saying to always do it, because a lot of the time a story needs to be told in one way and you have to find the right words/phrases/description for it. I get that — I struggle with that. But, in my experience, it’s not a bad idea to just try something and stick it out there.

Fear — insecurity, really — is a writer’s greatest enemy. We are our worst critics. We can love something one day and the next morning look at it and feel like utter shit. We can hate ourselves for failing to achieve something, even though we really haven’t failed.

It’s not failing if you try. It’s only failing if you don’t.

Rule #2: Always Write Something.

Stephen King said this originally, I believe, and I agree with him: always write something. Anything. The reason I have so many writing projects going on is not because I like to have that many (I have a bad case of writer ADD and it hampers my efficiency, no doubt), but because I’m bound to write something for one of them. Even this blog (or my other blog) is writing something — any sort of focused writing will do.

Random posts on Facebook don’t count, unless you’re responding to a writing prompt: in which case, that counts. Twitter doesn’t count either (I hate the 140 character limit, it kills me). But some sort of focused writing works. Inspiration can come from anywhere, but I particularly like prompts. The Weekly Free Writes over at Ad Astra are a great way to get things in gear (you don’t even have to post them there, I have a ton of stuff I have written in response to the prompts that have never seen the light of day). It doesn’t have to be seen by anyone but you, but find a way to squeeze some words out, even if it’s only a 100 of them. Every little bit counts.

Rule #3: Find What Inspires You and Keep Coming Back To It.

It’s easy to say, but in practice it’s hard. Inspiration isn’t a consistent thing for most writers I know — we have highs and lows, and that’s a function of being the creative type of people we are. There are ruts and there are grooves, but when you find that inspiration, don’t let go. Keep coming back to it, even if you have to put the same song on repeat for four hours at a time (been there, done that).

Whether it’s music or art, whether it’s a particular episode or series, a movie, exercise, what have you — don’t be afraid to tap the vein for all it’s worth. There’s a thought out there, at least for myself, that I should “save” some of it, stash it away for a dry day but the problem is that inspiration comes and goes — it’s not savable. It’s there, a one shot deal, so when you see it, hold onto it for dear life and don’t let go until it’s been spent.

There’s a sports adage that says you can’t take your timeouts home with you, which basically means they’re good in the game and that’s it — they have no use otherwise. Inspiration, for me, is much the same way: it’s good when I’m writing but it stops being useful when I stop writing. As long as I’m writing, as long as I’m in the game, I can use it. When it’s done, when I’m done, it’s over and it goes away.

It’ll come back, it always does, but finding it takes a little while, or a long while, or sometime in-between and it can be frustrating.

Find your inspiration. Find it and use it.


That’s it for the rules right now. I’ll add more in future posts, I’m sure. As always, thanks for reading folks. Feel free to add some of your own rules in the comments below or start a topic in our forums.

Live long and prosper.