1000 Rules for Writing

Listening to: In-Flight Safety, “Model Homes”

The Guardian this past weekend ran a long, long feature in which novelists, playwrights, and other mystical beings who spend their days grappling with words listed their personal writing rules. Of course, I couldn’t help but spend far too much time reading it. By the time I finished, my head hurt a little bit, and I wasn’t sure if I was inspired, blocked, or exhausted–or maybe all three. Somehow, though, I couldn’t stop until I’d read them all.

First, a few of my personal favorites:

Margaret Atwood:

Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

Roddy Doyle:

Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.*

Helen Dunmore:

Learn poems by heart.

Geoff Dyer:

Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.

Neil Gaiman:

Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.


The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

Zadie Smith:

Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

(Please just go read all of Coim Tóibín’s rules in Part Two. They’re nicely tongue-in-cheek…I think.)

Jeanette Winterson:

Love what you do.

Esther Freud:

Never forget, even your own rules are there to be broken.


Of course, reading all these rules got me thinking. What would my rules be? I don’t necessarily need ten of them, but what have I learned over these past few years? And what do I wish now-Kristy could tell then-Kristy, to save time and angst?

  1. Enjoy the first draft. It’s a wild ride, an adrenaline rush like no other. Love even the frustrations and the roadblocks, because they lead to the joyous moment when you destroy them.
  2. Motivation. If you’re characters’ motivations aren’t realistic, your characters will come off as fake. (Thanks again, Tia!)
  3. You can’t help but write, so there’s no point in trying to quit. You’re an addict. Deal with it.
  4. Listen to your critique partners, beta readers, and various other editing-types. They may not always be right, but the statistics are very much on their side.
  5. Let yourself be sentimental during the first draft, but after that, drop the misty-eyed lovey-dovey feelings. They’ll only get in your way.
  6. Be the writer you want to be. Other people may push you to be the writer they see in you,** but you’ll never be happy unless you’re being yourself.

So…what would your rules be?

*This one stuck in my head afterward, inspiring me to finally give my WIP a name. It came to me rather quickly, just popped into my head, and now I absolutely adore it. No, I won’t tell you what it is. Not yet. =P

**Creative writing prof I adored told me fiction wasn’t my forte, and I should pursue creative non-fiction. Mom desperately wants me to write mysteries or historical fiction. Brother wishes he was related to someone who wrote like Tom Robbins, and won’t read my books until this wish comes true. But until I hand that manuscript over to someone to read, it’s just me and the words–and those words won’t be honest unless I’m being my own writer, and no one else’s. I write YA, and people can think what they want of that, but I love every freaking second.