Ten Writing Commandments

Originally published 18/09/2016

I’m in a cliché sort of mood today and since I don’t want to burden the novel I intend to work on this afternoon with clichés, I’m afraid I’m going to burden you with them instead. Behold, my Ten Writing Commandments, predictably humorously written in a crude approximation of ‘King James English’ and with helpful expositions of each rule.

Most of these rules are as old as the hills and are probably familiar to you. I am not, for one second, claiming to have invented any of these rules. However, this is a compilation of ten writing precepts, from a variety of sources, that I have found to be particularly useful to me. I should add that the expositions I have included are all my own.

So, without further ado…

1. Thou shalt show; thou shalt not tell.

This is what separates quality prose from a technical manual. Allow me to demonstrate with an excerpt from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men:

‘They sat by the fire and filled their mouths with beans…’ (emphasis mine).

This is a well written line. Rather than telling you what happened, it uses imagery to allow the reader to experience for themselves the sight of two men, stuffing their faces with beans.

Here is what that exact same passage might look like if it was all telling and no showing:

‘They sat by the fire and ate lots of beans.’

Exactly the same thing is happening here but it fails to capture the gluttony of the ravening men. The reader is not transported to the fireside to witness the feast of beans. We are simply informed. Boring!

2. Thou shalt not make unto thee unrealistic goals.

Be honest with yourself about what it is possible to achieve. A thousand words a day seems like a small goal, but after only one year, you will have 365,000 words; that’s a trilogy of novels, all because you succeeded in reaching your daily goal. But if you set yourself a goal of 10,000 words a day and fail to meet it, you will never complete anything.

Slow and steady wins the race (I haven’t got these clichés out of my system just yet)!

3. Thou shalt remove all distractions.

I’m looking at you, Facebook. Get rid of anything that might distract your attention. TV, internet, chattering relatives, the lot. Focus solely on achieving the goal you have set for yourself that day. If you find yourself prone to a wandering mind, allow yourself regular but carefully timed breaks to do all the other little things you need/want to do… but when it’s writing time, it’s writing time.

4. Thou shalt not use words in vain.

Waffle is no fun to read… so why it write it?

Oh, I see… you want to ‘pad out’ your story to reach your word limit, so you’re thinking of adding in lots of unnecessary words to make your sentences longer? Well, don’t. All that does is breaks up the flow of your story. Take this phrase for example: ‘The brightly shining sun…’

There are four words in that phrase, two of which (‘brightly’ and ‘shining’) are superfluous. The reader doesn’t need you to tell them that the sun is shining brightly, because the sun always shines brightly by its very nature. It’s never dull or dark. The noun ‘sun’ naturally conjures images of bright shininess all by itself. If the sun was shining dimly for some reason, then an adverb might just come in handy!

If in doubt, remember the rule that every word and sentence you write ought to help the story to progress. Don’t tell the reader what they already know or do not need to know.

5. Thou shalt know thine audience.

Even if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t like to think about the commercial side of writing, knowing your intended audience is the only way to know exactly what to write. No story, no matter how well written, will suit everybody; therefore, it must suit somebody. It is only possible to reliably accomplish this if you know in advance who that somebody is.

6. Thou shalt write regularly and often.

Some say you have to write every single day or you are doomed to fail. I think that’s a slight exaggeration but the principle is sound. Depending on your circumstances, it might be more appropriate to write seven, six or five days a week but what really matters is that you get into a habit of writing often (because believe me, good writers practice their craft) and at regular set times to help you avoid distraction. Not only this, but having a regular writing time means you will also have a regular ‘clocking off’ time – because writing every hour God sends is no healthier than being at any other job 24/7.

7. Thou shalt write swiftly…

Planner or pantser, the same applies to both of you: when it comes to writing, the best thing you can do is to make sure words are constantly appearing on the page without stopping to improve (or worse, delete) what you’ve just written. This is not the time for editing or second-guessing yourself. Get your story down in all its dreadful badness. A bad story can become a good story, but nothing won’t become anything. If you really can’t bring yourself to do it, join an archaeology expedition and try to dig up an old typewriter and write your story on that instead.

8. … and thou shalt edit slowly.

Having said that, you still want your story to be perfect. So, once you’ve got your story written down, go over it with a fine tooth comb. Analyse it carefully and in detail; word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. Find whatever stylistic or grammatical problems there may be and do not rest until they have all been resolved to your satisfaction.

9. Thou shalt retain professional detachment from everything you write.

What I mean by this is that no part of your story – words, sentences, metaphors, word-play, characters, plot twists or anything else – should be safe from being changed or completely deleted as necessary. What matters is the story. This is especially important for writers of speculative fiction who feel the need to explain every intricate detail of how their fantasy world functions. You as the writer might be very excited about what you’ve created, but the truth is, the reader is not. The reader is looking for a story, so don’t go off on long tangents.

The same is true, however, even in non-speculative fiction. Perhaps you have written some really powerful dialogue or the perfect fight scene… but they have no real function in your story. They will need to go. Therefore, do not become overly attached to anything you have create or else when you come to edit, it will be like having one hand tied behind your back.

10. Thou shalt break these commandments as ye see fit.

I mentioned at the beginning that these were ten rules that I have found to be useful to me personally. The truth is, I’ve come across dozens of books and websites claiming that ‘this, that or the other’ is the most important rule to follow in writing but really… there are successful writers who follow one set of rules and there are those who do the exact opposite. Some write daily; some do not. Some plan; some pants. I remember once on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a particular character commented that you can only write about what you have experienced… which got me wondering what planet (literally) the writers of Star Trek were living on. I’ve said it several times today and I’ll say it again: what matters is your story.

If the only way you know to get words on the page is to do the opposite of everything I’ve written here, then do it with my blessing. Rules are made to be broken.

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