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Ten Rules for Writers

Posted by Barry Strauss on January 4, 2023

“Every beginning is hard,” so the saying goes. Maybe that’s not true of the New Year, which most people ease into joyously, nervously, and often drunkenly. Or, if the saying is true, perhaps it refers only to hangovers, and here in the northern hemisphere, to cold weather, and everywhere to the difficulty of sticking to New-Year’s resolutions.

But the saying is certainly true if you are beginning to write a new book. That’s what I was doing during the holiday season this year. Classes over, so were my excuses, so I sat down at my desk and started. And false started. And started again.

Writing is frustrating and exhilarating. It’s dangerous, like handling explosives.

Writing is frustrating and exhilarating. It’s dangerous, like handling explosives. If you try to force it, the words may blow up in your face. If, by contrast, you handle the process with care, then the prose will finally start to pour out, with any bangs removed to a safe distance away.

As my chapter began to take shape, I reflected more than I usually do about the practice of writing. In the hope that my thoughts might be of interest, I’m sharing some of them here. I encourage you to write me with your own ideas about the art of writing or about creativity more generally.

Think of yourself on a beach or a mountain or breathing in the bracing air of a windy sea, a lighthouse looming offshore.

Ten Rules for Writers as you stare at the blank page or screen:

  1. Don’t get it right, get it written. It’s more important to start with something than to stare and stare at the page in search of perfection. Once you have something down on paper (more likely, on the screen), you’ll be able to reshape it or toss it out. Which is not a problem because:
  2. Writing is rewriting. Thanks to the late great William Zinnser for stating this clearly. See his wonderful book, On Writing Well. Few of us nail it at first go, so get out your mental red pencil and be prepared to edit and edit again. I miss the grand gesture, in the old days, of pulling a sheet of foolscap out of a massive Royal typewriter, crumpling it into a ball, and tossing it into the trash. Still, the cross-outs and line-throughs of Track Changes have a certain comforting rhythm to them.
  3. “De l’audace, encore de l’audace, toujours de l’audace!” “Be bold, bolder, and ever bolder,” as they said in the French Revolution. If you have something daring or even something outrageous to say, just say it. It may represent your heart’s desire. You can always use your head and rethink it later, and you probably will.
  4. Write the first part or the first chapter last. It’s best to begin in the middle. Chances are that you’ll have a good grasp of at least some of the material there. The opening, however, makes sense only after you’ve put all the pieces in order. For me, it’s usually the last thing that I write. Or, if I do sometimes start at the beginning, it’s only knowing that I’ll probably end up rewriting it from top to bottom.
  5. Don’t sleep on midnight inspiration. If you wake up with what seems like a brilliant idea at 2 a.m., don’t count on remembering it when you get up in the morning. Write it down then and there. Either keep a notebook/pen or smartphone on your bedside table or get up and write it down.
  6. Writing is reading. Nothing improves our writing more than reading great writers. Identify work that you admire or that intrigues you. Make time to read it as you write. If you’re as detail oriented as I am, you may keep a file of favorite sentences and paragraphs. Go back to it frequently and see if you can match their craftsmanship.
  7. Print it out. It’s amazing how much more you see in print than on the screen. Errors or infelicities that pass by us electronically will jump off the page when held in our hands.
  8. Everyone needs an editor. Eventually, your writing, we hope, will pass before the practiced eyes of a professional editor. If that’s not the case, or if it’s not going to happen for a while, send your work to a trusted friend or two, preferably another writer, but any intelligent reader will do. Feedback is invaluable. What may have seemed clear to you when you wrote it may make little sense to others. You won’t know that, of course, until another person reads it.
  9. Set a time limit. We all need to think things through, but if you’re like me, you run the risk of overthinking. Improve the situation by putting just a little pressure on yourself – but not too much: remember that dynamite. It’s amazing how quickly you can write something if the clock is ticking.
  10. Take a sabbatical. Write at least a little every day but leave one day of the week free from writing. Step away from your work and refresh your mind. Let your imagination wander. Think of yourself on a beach or a mountain or breathing in the bracing air of a windy sea, a lighthouse looming offshore. Be a writer, but be a person too.

Have fun. Writing is hard work, but it should also be joyous.