37 Rules for Writers
This is one of the most popular columns I have written and I'm proud to say I get requests for it pretty often. With that in mind, here it is again, last appearing in 2019. Thanks for your support! ML
Sometimes a pithy little thought is more powerful than a detailed explanation. Here are some that work for me.
1. A good writer is observant and disciplined. “Smart” is not nearly as important.
2. Get the facts right and the style will take care of itself.
3. Hard work beats imagination.
4. Successful writers treat writing like a job.
5. When you're stuck, take your work to a new location.
6. If you can’t explain it, you don’t understand it.
7. Another edit will always improve things, but at some point you have to choose to be finished.
8. A long piece is many shorter pieces.
9. You don’t write well with music on. You are not the exception.
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10. Some people obsess over AP style. Some people obsess over the quality of their writing. They are not the same people.
11. Get rid of adverbs.
12. How words sound is as important as what they mean.
13. One appropriate adjective is better than two.
14. Use passive voice only when you know why you’re doing so.
15. Shorter is always better.
16. The only writer who breaks a rule of grammar well is a writer who knows the rule he is breaking and why.
17. Avoid semicolons.
18. The Oxford comma forecloses on ambiguity. The AP comma rule sacrifices that clarity for a saved keystroke.
19. There is no place for comic sans.
20. A Janson font will make your writing look “literary.”
21. Part of getting published is luck.
22. Excellence guarantees nothing.
23. You can write to satisfy yourself alone, but don’t expect anybody to pay you for it.
24. The more places you pitch something, the more likely it is to be published.
25. Sometimes the writer who gets the job is the one who kept asking after everyone else stopped.
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26. Fiction without structure is like a sack of trash.
27. Fiction looks easier than non-fiction but it’s not. With non-fiction you have only to record your observations of the natural world. With fiction, you have to become nature itself: you must manufacture a world, create a system of rules that govern its behavior, and keep your characters from breaking them.
28. Surprise the reader by showing him situations he has never encountered, perspectives he has never considered, and words he has never seen associated.
29. Demonstrate character by action.
30. Consistent characters are not believable because people are not consistent.
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31. Beware writers who talk about writing more than they write.
32. You learn to write by making mistakes and being corrected. "Write every day" is, by itself, poor advice.
33. If you assume the reader is as interested in the subject as you are, you won’t have that reader for long.
34. Don’t try to write for a living unless you love it, and by “it” I mean writing as an activity, not writing what you enjoy.
35. Most criticism is an expression only of taste. Ignore it.
36. Most feedback from friends is flattery. Don’t be sucked in.
37. Unconstructive criticism is motivated by the desire of the critic to secure company for his misery.
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