Robert A. Heinlein’s 5 Rules of Writing

Back in December, I wrote a blog reviewing and giving my take on Vonnegut’s 8 rules of writing. Today, I thought I would cast a glance over Heinlein’s 5 rules and, as before, add a couple of my own thoughts on each. As a caveat, the distinction of the rules from Vonnegut is that Vonnegut’s were on writing craft, whereas Heinlein’s rules are on the business of writing. As always, let me know your thoughts on these!

1. You must write.

How many people have you met that tell you they want to be a writer or to write a novel, but they don’t actually ever write anything? What I take from this imperative is that if you are going to succeed professionally (I am not talking about hobbyist writers) then you need to take it seriously. Set yourself up for success, with time carved out, small and large goals, and make a habit of actually writing. Not just thinking about it. I will add to this if you want to be a professional writer, you must also show other people your writing – that means alpha readers, beta readers, and critique partners – and you must send it out to markets (magazines, editors, agents).

2. You must finish what you write.

And we are already in controversial territory. Some people say you cannot learn to write if you don’t finish the pieces. Some say it is better to walk away if something isn’t working. I agree with both, though I lean toward the former camp. I don’t think you can learn to write if all you ever write are beginnings. There are very specific skills that go into middles and ends, and short stories or novels need all three. I do think there are some stories that are unfixable. And those probably you should just walk away from, rather than spending a lot of your limited time trying to fix what is permanently broken. Usually, these are ones with critical logic errors. The problem is you should not make a habit of that. Your habit should be to finish. Most completed writing, even those with logical flaws, can be edited into something. The only time I really walk away from something is if it bores me. So my advice here would be, if you want to finish things, don’t start writing until you have an idea you are excited about.

3. You must refrain from re-writing, except to editorial order

Some people may be celebrating right now, thinking this means editing is not necessary. I don’t think that is what he meant. I think this is intended as a protection against writers’ predilection to want to write the perfect piece. For example, I’ve already reconsidered re-writing my response to #2 above twice. I won’t do it. And neither should you. Because perfection isn’t necessary, or even possible. But also because I can spend that time finishing and publishing this on the blog and sharing it, and moving on to another piece. I will edit it before I post it. But not to where I completely change what is there, or that I’m still working on it, unposted, in 6 months’ time.

4. You must put the work on the market.

And this makes me feel my answer to #1 jumped the gun and needs editing. But I won’t. I will leave it, obeying #3, and just add here: what I take from this is, do not self-reject. As writers, we are horrible at knowing our own strengths and weaknesses. We have blind spots. It is reasonable, and necessary, to send your work once you have worked on it. Share your gifts with the universe. Let the universe (or at least several editors) decide it’s not ready, or not right for them.

5. You must keep the work on the market until it’s sold.

Or, I would add, until you have grown enough as a writer that you understand what is wrong with it, or have grown such that you would be unhappy to have this on the market as an example of your work. But if you are still happy with it, you should not allow rejections to make you trunk it. Keep sending it out.

Do you agree with all of Heinlein’s rules? Or any other tweeks you would like to add?

Let me know!

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