17 “Rules” of Writing from famous authors

Pirate's Code

I’ve been hunting for various authors’ writing rules and advice. Below are my favorite ones, with who’s list it’s from. To quote Pirates of the Caribbean: “They’re more guidelines than actual rules.”

1. Write. (Neil Gaiman)

2. Remember that you admire a character for trying more than for their successes. (Emma Coates, Pixar’s Story Artist)

3. Never open a book with the weather and avoid prologues. (Elmore Leonard)

4. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter. (Neil Gaiman)

5. On writing rules: If somebody’s writing “rule” has the word “never” in it, or it can be easily rephrased so as to have the word “never” in it, it’s probably safe to ignore, though you might want to think about it in passing just to make sure that whatever you’re doing instead is working. (Patricia Wrede)

6. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different. (Emma Coates, Pixar’s Story Artist)

7. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. (Neil Gaiman)

8. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself (Emma Coates, Pixar’s Story Artist)

9. A writer should say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it. (Mark Twain)

10. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. (Kurt Vonnegut)

11. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils. (Margaret Atwood)

12. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous. (George Orwell)

13. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front. (Emma Coates, Pixar’s Story Artist)

14. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free. (Emma Coates, Pixar’s Story Artist)

15. When the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. (Mark Twain)

16. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To h*** with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

17. Write the sentence, not just the story. (Janet Fitch)

In case you want to check out the rules that I didn’t include here, or are seeking expansion on them (especially #17), my sources are below:

Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

Patricia Wrede’s blog post “Rules? What rules?

Writing advice from Elmore Leonard

George Orwell’s 5 Rules for Writing

Mark Twain’s Rules of Writing

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules

Margaret Atwood’s Rules

Janet Fitch’s Rules of Writing

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One thought on “17 “Rules” of Writing from famous authors

  1. Rena (@Renathewriter) says:

    These are good rules. Although I’m not sure about giving the reader too much information. I’m a big fan of the old adage “Never apologize, never explain.”

    On the other hand, you don’t want people to be confused when the bad guy crops up in the last chapters with a brand new gun. You want them to know about the gun for a long time coming…

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