The world of writing books and websites is littered with rules about how exactly to excel as a writer. You must use an outline, or you must use index cards. You must barrel through that first draft, never stopping to edit your work. You must write only in the evenings, or only in the mornings, and you must focus only on one project.
I think we run into problems when ideas transform into rules. As writers, we do share a lot of common experiences. Some are wonderful, like the unfettered joy of completing a first draft or that glorious writer’s high you feel when you know you’ve been productive. And some are frustrating, like the agony of knowing exactly how the scene needs to play out but somehow not being able to get it right.
But some people, and some would-be experts, see common experiences and imagine that all writers are the same. From this perspective, I think they steer a lot of people wrong.
So I’d like to share with you a slightly different set of rules.
1.) Respect Your Individuality
The truth of the matter is that we’re not all the same. We’re all individual writers with individual writer-brains, and that means that what works for one person may not work for another.
Consider, for example, that rule about never editing until you complete a draft. For a lot of writers, particularly those prone to distraction, this can be a terrific piece of advice, but it’s never worked for me. I’m an editor, not just in occupation but in mentality, and consequently I’ve never been able to move ahead while still uncomfortable with what I’ve already written. That means a lot of revising as I go, and a completed first draft that is more polished than your average first draft—but also takes longer to write.
This works for me. It might not work for you.
2.) Find Your Strategy
So we writers need to beware of treating as rules what should be advice and following them blindly. Instead, the trick is to try enough different things to learn for yourself what works best for you and your own writer-brain.
Maybe you’ll find that, despite once being certain that you could only write on your own, you’re actually a lot more productive when you write with a group of other writers. This is what I’ve discovered about myself. For years, I dismissed the idea of participating in a writing group, but once I decided to give it a try I became more productive than I’d ever been before.
At the same time, you may find that, despite always assuming that you could only be productive with others, you get a lot more done when you’re on your own. You may find that outlines make absolutely no sense to you. You may find that the ideal time to start writing is 2:36 in the afternoon.
And if it works for you, how can anyone question it?
3.) Make the Time
But there is one bit of advice that should indeed be taken as a rule: Writers write. However you do it, and whenever you do it, you do need to set the time aside every week to devote yourself to writing. Maybe that means one hour every day, or maybe it means five hours every Sunday. Only you can decide that for yourself.
But no writer in the world can finish a novel or memoir or anything else if they never take the time actually to write it. No writer in the world can become a better writer if they don’t practice.
So write, and write often, but also write smart. Follow only the rules that make sense for you, and be open to trying new things.
Developmental editor Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing and along the way has worked on more than fifty published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in middle-grade, young adult, and adult manuscripts in categories as diverse as science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, literary fiction, women’s fiction, and memoir, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe. He is also an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012).