Writing by the rules

Robert Heinlein, classic science fiction author, offered fellow writers five rules in his 1947 essay “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction:”

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you start.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
  4. You must put it on the market.
  5. You must keep it on the market until it is sold.

The first rule seems self-evident, but it is all too easy for writers to violate. Writers can get distracted with editing, outlining, researching, social media, email, or mindless internet browsing. Many of these activities seem like work. They seem productive. But they aren’t writing. Writers write. It’s right there in the name.

The second rule still seems obvious. However, what if you start writing something that is terrible? Shouldn’t you just abandon ship and work on something better? I don’t know what Heinlein would say, but let’s assume his logic is sound. Why would you want to finish something that is terrible? You may find it not so terrible once it is finished. You might find something good come out of it you can use later. Other people may actually like it, even though you don’t. Some books (or songs, movies, etc.) that I think are terrible can still sell well. But only because they were finished products.

The third rule is the most controversial. If you search for articles on this topic, you’ll find tons of people weighing in on rule 3. Most throw it out, or claim Heinlein lived in a time where bad writing could still sell, and that’s why he didn’t rewrite. I prefer to take it at face value. Do not rewrite except to editorial order. That is, do not rewrite until someone else has read what you have written. Writers are notoriously poor self-editors. Why rewrite without another set of eyes to help you focus in the right areas? Trying to perfect a work without feedback is bound for disaster. Get a second opinion before doing surgery on your own work.

The fourth rule is my favorite. Put your work on the market. I’m going to put a different spin on this. Heinlein probably meant with a publisher, but I’ll suggest this works equally well (if not better) for artisinal publishing today. I am in this process with my first book – getting it to market. I’m learning about formats, cover design, and everything else that goes into getting my book put into the market. Note: the Author, Publisher Entrepreneur book by Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch is a tremendous asset.

The fifth rule is the money rule: Literally. It requires you to sell your work. That means someone gives you money for writing. Once published, rule five kicks in, and the writer now transforms into their own sales force. Promote your work until you no longer want anyone to read it or everyone already has. This is another scary part for many writers. It is for me. Scary, but thrilling once things start to roll.

Heinlein’s five rules were written over seventy-five years ago, but are just as valid today as they were then. As you proceed on your writing journey, be sure to write by the rules.


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