Tag Archives: Heinlein’s rules for writers

Robert’s rules

Fred K. reminds us of the five simple rules for writers, as laid down by Robert A. Heinlein. Now, Heinlein was hardly the fount of wisdom too many of his fans take him for — “An armed society is a polite society” is one of the dumbest statements ever made by an apparently intelligent person — but he was invariably shrewd and reliable when he talked about writing. I don’t know when he first laid down his five rules for writers, but they’ve never been bettered:

1) You must write.

2) You must finish what you write.

3) You must not rewrite unless to editorial demand.

4) You must mail your story to an editor who will pay you money.

5) You must keep it in the mail until someone buys it.

Because writing is a process so fraught with ego traps and personal quirks, the utter simplicity of these rules is one of their greatest strengths. “Aspiring writer” is one of the most hilarious contradictions in terms ever framed by the human mind. One does not aspire to write. One simply writes. Until you have written something, you are not a writer. You have to have a completed manuscript of something that emerged from your own mind, put there and shaped by your will and determination. What happens next is another matter.

The third point is the debatable one, for me. I’ve never written anything that wasn’t substantially improved by at least one bout of revision, usually after a cooling-off period of at least a month. If your first-draft ideas have any strength in them, they’ll be able to withstand a bit of rewriting. More to the point, they’ll be all the stronger for the extra work. What you can’t do is let yourself get mired in endless second-guessing and revisions.

The fourth and fifth rules are, like the first two, as self-evident as the existence of gravity. I’m aware that Heinlein wrote in an entirely different commercial era: the mid- to late-twentieth century, when there was a thriving magazine market and it was feasible for a writer to earn a small but comfortable living from short stories. In this straitened commercial environment, you may end up placing a short story with a nonpaying literary magazine simply to get some exposure. I would count that as a paying transaction, of sorts, as long as it’s done with a greater goal in mind.

But keeping an unsold¬†story or a novel manuscript in circulation is simply a practical necessity: if nobody’s getting a chance to look at your work, then you’re not getting a chance to sell it.¬†Believe me, I’m quite familiar with the feeling of futility that comes with too many rejection slips, but you have to shake it off. You’ve already done the hard work of writing the thing. Sticking the manuscript into a fresh envelope is a piece of cake, and doing the research for new editors and magazines to contact can only help you in the long run.

Robert J. Sawyer adds a sixth rule: Start working on something else. Absolutely true. Every finished writing project is training for an even better new project. A work-in-progress makes rejection easier to take, and it means you can answer “Yes” if an editor asks if you have anything else he can look at.

And, just to keep you going, here’s Lynn Viehl’s 25 reasons why you shouldn’t give up writing.

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