Appendix C—Rules for Writers and Writing

I’m not going to spew a bunch of extra stuff here. It should go without saying that I believe the “rules” in this appendix are good ones to follow. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have included them.

One note—please don’t be so closed minded that you see (for example) Robert Heinlein’s name and automatically assume the rules that follow apply only to science fiction. They don’t.

I’m not joking.

Seriously, if that’s who you are, please put down this book NOW and back away slowly so you don’t get a paper cut. Yes, even if you’re reading it on your computer or as an ebook.

All right. Without further ado, here are Rules for Writers and Writing from people who know: long-term professional fiction writers.

Heinlein’s Business Rules of Writing

These were originally published almost as an afterthought in an essay in 1948 when what we think of today as “traditional publishing” was just beginning to come into its own.

I have updated these for the new world of self-publishing. What follows each rule is my addendum.

1. You must write.

Writers write. Thinking about writing is not writing. Revising, critiquing, rewriting, researching, and attending conferences or seminars is not writing. Talking about writing is not writing. Only putting new words on the page is writing. Writers write.

2. You must finish what you write.

This doesn’t mean you have to go back and dig up all those things you started and didn’t finish. But it DOES mean beginning today, Finish What You Write.

3. You must not rewrite.

Period. After you’ve finished a story or novel, follow your process. I recommend giving it to a trusted First Reader (trusted meaning s/he will tell you the truth) and ask that person to read naturally and point out anything that distracts him or her. Again, when you get it back, correct any distractions and then send it out (submit, publish, etc.). Then write the next story (see Rule 1).

4. You must publish your work so readers can buy it.

This actually goes to marketing. The cover and opening of your story sells that story. The ending of you story sells your next story. The best thing you can do to market your work is write another story. Then write another one. Then another one.

5. You must keep your work published so more readers can buy it.

If you need to update the cover as you become more adept at cover design, that’s fine. But once a story is published, leave it up.

Ray Bradbury’s 7 Rules for Writers

  1. Write with gusto.
  2. In quickness is truth.
  3. Write who you are.
  4. Don’t write for money or fame.
  5. Feed the muse daily.
  6. Don’t be afraid to explore the attic.
  7. Surprise yourself.

Ernest Hemingway’s Rules for Writers

  1. Use short sentences.
  2. Use short first paragraphs.
  3. Use vigorous English.
  4. Be positive, not negative.

There are exceptions to all rules (except, in my opinion, Heinlein’s). Hemingway’s short story “After the Storm” begins with this, in direct violation of Rules 1, 2 & 4:

It wasn’t about anything, something about making punch, and then we started fighting and I slipped and he had me down kneeling on my chest and choking me with both hands like he was trying to kill me and all the time I was trying to get the knife out of my pocket to cut him loose.

The point is, Write.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writing Fiction

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them, in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

And just like that, we’re at the end of the book. Thanks for coming along on this ride. I hope you picked up some things you can use.

No, that isn’t right. I KNOW there are things here you can use. Let me rephrase that.

I hope you have picked up some things you WILL use.

I hope you will become a Heinlein’s Rules adherent as I and so many others are. Nothing can match the joy of making stuff up for a living. Seriously.

‘Til next time, happy writing.


The sign in the antique shop read, “This ain’t no museum. All this junk is for sale.” Same here.

I am a professional writer. This is my living. If you enjoy or learn from my work, click the Subscribe to My Work tab above. (It isn’t the same as subscribing to this blog.) As an alternative, consider dropping a tip into my Tip Jar on your way out. If you’ve already contributed, thanks so much.

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9 thoughts on “Appendix C—Rules for Writers and Writing”

  1. What a good turn you did us, Harvey!
    I lovelove seeing all of these assembled concise lists , reading and arranging the ideas, in my limited experience, as “good,” “self-evident but not to some,” “fine for him but not for me, “and WHAT?

    Mostly, I loved the ones that summed up a personal conclusion I had already reached. Like, don’t disappoint the reader who has suspended belief long enough to look at your work. Having been tormented in that fashion, I resent it terribly.

    And, I loved writing with gusto. and vigorous language. If writing is a chore, an obligation (other than work), something that makes procrastination easier than finding a word, something that wears you out without ever giving you the exhilaration of “flow,” then don’t do it. Give it up for your health. or a good Lent. or as a “phase.”
    Just please refrain from telling the world how hard it is for you, since you are trying to be so “good” at it.

    Also, I have found that if I can’t bring myself to tears over my characters and their follies, quite likely no one else will care. AND, if I bring the characters some resolution or happiness or hope, then I don’t need anyone else to applaud. Maybe I am my target audience?

    See, Harvey, you just get the ideas all stirred up and then watch, hoping something sprouts.
    write, right?

    • Hi Kat, Thanks! One way to avoid rewriting is to cycle back as you write. 🙂 But no matter what you do, as long as you stay in creative voice (subsconscious) and don’t allow your conscious mind to second guess you, you’ll be miles ahead.

  2. These rules especially encourage me: Write to please one person, which I think means to write to one person. Write who you are. All of Heinlein’s rules. Thanks again, Harvey, for your generosity. Margaret Ann

  3. 0530: This (book) combined with your daily journal is a vein of solid gold. The journal lets me know that it is possible for you/me to hit blockades and detours and still go on. It is possible to accept “life happens” events and not let it stop you for ever and ever. Example: Monday: We need a new thermostat that hasn’t arrived, yet. I worked at the keyboard. Added 1000+ words. Wednesday: The freezer alarm sounded. Spent the morning looking for a new one. Old freezer was really old – over twenty years. New freezer is to be delivered sometime today (Thursday). Wednesday afternoon -after cleaning out the freezer with PJ – Decided to take the day off and read An Invisible Thread (true story) by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresnikowski. Finished the book in six hours. It was worth the break. Got to check on a friend who is having surgery, today. She’s on top of my list. Difficult to think fiction when reality rears its head. Thanks Harvey, for being human.

    • Thanks Sam, Good to hear. Hope your (our) friend does as well in the surgery as she does at everything else.

    • Web, my friend, “I saw the sun come up and expect to see it go down. Nothing happened in between that will matter in five years, so it’s definitely a good day.” From my buddy, Western Z. Crowley

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