Yet Another Set of 10 Rules For Being a Writer

(I meant to release this blog last week; I hadn’t finished it in time for Sunday, however. So here it is, finished)

So, over the last couple weeks (probably for the run-up to NaNoWriMo), I’ve seen people post several versions of “10 Rules for Being a Writer” type blogs and magazine articles.  I’m not sure of the value of this type of article, but hey — it’s a good topic for a blog entry, so why not throw my own hat into the ring?  So here are David A. Tatum’s 10 Rules for Being a Writer.”

Rule 1:  Write.  Actually, this is pretty much the only rule you need to be a writer.

Rule 2:  Keep Writing.  This is the difference between being a writer and being a former writer.  Some people suggest you write every day; I think this is a good recommendation if you can manage it, but I’ve had life interfere with my ability to write for far too many days to say it’s a requirement.

At some point, you may want to pursue writing as a profession.  Authors (while “writer” and “author” are, by definition, synonyms, I usually use “author” to refer to professional writers of original material.   Another type of professional writer would be a technical writer, but I’ve never known someone to describe themselves as an “aspiring” technical writer, whereas I’ve seen many describe themselves as aspiring authors) do need to hold themselves to a slightly higher standard than amateur writers.  Amateur writers only need to follow the first two rules on this list; the rest of it is for anyone who wants to advance past “amateur” and into the ranks of “professional.”

All writers are also different, so the remaining “rules” aren’t rules at all, but merely suggestions.

Rule 3 (aka Suggestion 1):  There have been far too many writers who’ve written a few chapters of a book, then gone back and revised those chapters before moving forward, then done the same thing another chapter later, and again, and again.  Frequently, these revisions can actually weaken the text (in much the way overworked dough can result in tough bread, over-edited text can find itself drained of life and “authorial voice”).  Worse, these writers spend so much time revising that they never finish whatever it is that they’re writing!  For MOST writers, therefore, the best advice is to wait until you’ve finished the entire story before going back and revising anything.  But I can think of at least one counter-example (J.R.R. Tolkien) which shows you can write professionally even if you do this… but I don’t recommend it.

Rule 4 (aka Suggestion 2):  If you follow rules 1, 2, and 3 long enough, you’ll eventually have finished a manuscript (a short story, a novel, something in between, a play, a screenplay, etc.).  This is NOT (necessarily) the time to try and sell it.  You need to ensure that what you’ve written is reasonably good, first — I mean, yes, you COULD just post it to Amazon as it is, but if it isn’t any good you’ll be poisoning your brand.  While I think the whole idea that you have to write a million unpublishable words before you write your first publishable one is pessimistic (at best), I do think you need to stop and evaluate things before moving forward.  Don’t be afraid to reject your own work — you will eventually get something good enough.  If you start to think you’re close, find a way of showing your writing off to people who have no emotional connection to you (in other words, not friends or family.  I went the route of writing fanfiction, but there are other ways to do it.  In fact, fanfiction might not work for most people, as there is a lot of really bad fiction on Fanfiction.net that gets a ton of praise.  Then again, I’m also familiar with a number of fanfics which were written to what I would call a professional standard, whose authors never publish anything).

Rule 5 (aka Suggestion 3): To help you assess your own work, and to grow as a writer, it is a good idea to read.  I’ve heard people say you should “read a level above what you’re trying to write” (meaning, for example, if you’re writing fanfiction read midlist novels; if you’re writing midlist novels read bestsellers; if you’re writing bestsellers read Pulitzer Prize winners; etc.).  I’ve heard people say you should read everything (fiction of all genres, nonfiction, commentary, etc.).  I say you could do either of those things… or you could just read what interests you.  If all that interests you is webcomics, read webcomics.  If all that interests you is YA fiction, read YA fiction.  If the only thing you like to read is Tolkien, read the Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, the Silmarillion, etc. over and over and over again.  It doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you enjoy it.  If you enjoy what you read, I think you’re more likely to learn from it.

Rule 6 (aka Suggestion 4):  So, you’ve finally got something you think the public might like.  THIS is the time to start revisions.  I recommend reading your manuscript through at least once as a sanity check (not as in “Was I sane when I wrote this?”  Though that is a good question.  I mean as in “Did I forget to write the chapter that introduced the main character?”), making light corrections as you go.  Then you need a second set of eyes on it, to find all the things you forgot to explain because the story was so set in your head (for this stage, you do not need to bring in another professional).  THEN you get it copy-edited by someone who has professional-level talent and experience copy editing.  This is required for self-published authors who wish to maintain a professional standard in their work, and is STRONGLY recommended even for those seeking a trad publishing deal.

Rule 7 (aka Suggestion 5):  Once you’ve completed Rule 6 (aka, you’ve hired an editor to get things smoothed out), you will get back the manuscript you’ve written with “corrections.”  Go through the edits to your manuscript with a critical eye.  You DO NOT ALWAYS HAVE TO AGREE WITH YOUR EDITOR.  On the other hand, YOU HIRED YOUR EDITOR FOR A REASON.  So, consider everything your editor tells you.  My own proportion is to accept about 80% of the changes my editor makes.  Of the remaining edits, I see why he\she made the the change and agree it needed to be made more than half the time, but I have an alternate way of correcting it that I feel better fits my vision of the story.  The remaining edits (less than 10% of the whole) I revert to the original.

Rule 8 (aka Suggestion 6):  Once you’ve completed Rule 5, it’s time to consider publication.  Wait!  Put on the brakes, here!  First, research your options.  Don’t just submit your book to a random publisher or agent and pray; don’t just toss your book up on Smashwords or Amazon and hope for sales.  Start learning your trade, first!  Too many self-publishers have their book out but don’t understand things like what ISBNs are for, or that it’s okay that someone is selling your print copy book on eBay even though you haven’t sold any copies.  Learn how to avoid scams.  Learn the pitfalls of agents and contracts.  Learn what is good, ethical behavior vs. “best practice” vs. what’s acceptable.  This is something you can do in those anxious days while you’re waiting for your editor to get back to you with notes and corrections; you almost certainly won’t learn everything before you publish (I’m still learning; you never stop learning, really) but just a few weeks of investigation can help incredibly.

Rule 9 (aka Suggestion 7):  Once you’re published, reviews are your friends.  Reviews help sell your book.  But you should never respond to your reviews.  In fact, I recommend not even reading your reviews.  Paradoxically, you also need to get an idea of what people are saying about your work (at least in general), so you know where your writing needs work and if there’s a problem that needs to be fixed.  So… get someone else to read your reviews for you?

Rule 10 (aka Suggestion 8):  When it comes to writing, once you understand the rules — it doesn’t matter what the rules are, whether they are of grammar, of how to get published, of how to self-publish, of simply writing overall — and once you know the WHY of the rules, you can break them (well, except rule 1 — you aren’t a writer if you never write).  Or rather, you’ll know HOW to break them.  You often hear writing advice like “never use any adjectives.”  If you understand WHY that rule is in place, you’ll not need that “never use any adjectives” rule; you’ll be able to use adjectives effectively and judiciously, so you can go ahead and use them.  If you understand why you shouldn’t stop your writing-in-progress to go back and revise the unfinished piece, you’ll be able to effectively and judiciously go back and make tweaks when needed.

And those are my “ten rules” of writing.  How useful are they?  Well, you’ll have to decide that for yourself… but I find them useful enough.