There is a lot of advice out there for writers. Almost everyone who is a writer has advice for other writers. Me included. One thing that isn’t said often enough is that you have to be careful about what advice you follow. I don’t mean that some advice is bad in general, rather that not all of it will apply to you.


Dean Wesley Smith, a very prolific and varied writer, talks about Heinlein’s rules. The rules are simple enough:

1. You must write.

2. You must finish what you write.

3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

4. You must put the work on the market.

5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.


I don’t have an argument with these rules, ultimately. However, there are strict ways that they can be interpreted that just don’t work for me. OK, rules 1 and 2, not a lot of wiggle room. You can’t be a writer if you don’t write. You can’t publish if you don’t finish. Simple enough. Rules 4 and 5 have lots of room for interpretation – especially in the current market. It’s rule 3 that gets me in trouble.


There’s a question with rule 3. What is the difference between editing and rewriting? When I write a rough draft, it’s pretty rough. Often it’s very passive and sometimes the words just don’t have the impact that I want them to. So I go back over the story and I make changes. Sometimes I discover that events didn’t happen in the most effective order, so I have to move them around. Is this editing? Is this re-writing? Does it matter?


Here’s the thing. These rules worked very well for Heinlein. They should – they’re his rules. He knew exactly what he meant by them and they fit is style and talent perfectly. Dean Wesley Smith also follows these rules, by his own interpretation, and they work for him. Of course, it is entirely possible that what Heinlein meant and what Dean Wesley Smith means aren’t exactly the same. And that is the crux of the matter. While they are each using the same set of rules for writing, they are (or were) using them to match their own way of writing. In other words: Your Millage May Vary.


I don’t know that there is a way to interpret rule 3, no rewriting, in a way that allows my process. That’s fine. So I don’t use that part of the rules. I do however look at the impulse behind the rule: don’t look for perfection until you have sold the piece. Every market, every magazine, every anthology is going to want something a little different. You can’t make the story exactly right until you know where it’s going to be published, so don’t worry about that. If a story is good, it will show through. Then the editor who buys it will tell you what you need to do to make it perfect FOR THAT MARKET.


There are all kinds of “rules” out there that you really have to look at with regard to your own process, your own story, your voice, your way, before you just apply the rule. I’m thinking of this like “show don’t tell”. A great rule some of the time, but not always. If you can be more interesting, clear and concise with telling than showing, then just tell it. Or “don’t use passive voice”. Sometimes things happen TO your MC. Sometimes the actor isn’t clear, or shouldn’t be clear, or is unimportant. That’s what passive is there for. “Avoid adverbs”. Should be more like “don’t over use adverbs”. Why? Because adverbs are often fluff and there is a more powerful way of saying what they say. Sometimes, though, an adverb is exactly what you need.


I can’t tell you exactly when to follow what advice. I can only tell you that you’ve been listening to and telling stories far longer than you have been studying the rules or looking for writing advice. Listen to your subconscious – the story telling part of your brain – and if it tells you to go against the rules… Well that’s the best advice you can get. Just do it for the sake of the story and everything will work out just fine.

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