My Five Unbreakable Rules of Writing

Last time I blogged on Five Rules about Writing I (Sorta) Disagree With. I concluded with a promise to discuss some rules of good writing I do agree with. It won’t surprise you that they’re pretty obvious. Let’s take a look at five such rules anyway.

1. The first rule is the one I referred to as Isaac Asimov’s principle: Either it sounds right or it doesn’t sound right. As a writer who wants to be read by others, you will need to write to the inner ear of the prospective reader. Some so-called “good” writing does not do this. The grammar may be correct, the words are in decent order, and the meaning may even be clear. But the reader puts the book down anyway. Why? Because the writing, as literally correct as it may be, doesn’t resonate with the reader’s inner ear. The best way to write to the inner ear of the reader is to have a strong narrative inner ear yourself. If you read with a good inner ear, it’s likely you’ll also write with a good inner ear.

2. Closely related to number 1 is that to be a good writer, you need to be a good reader. Some may dispute this rule—and in fact, one of my favorite novels was written by a man who is not a reader….at all. But in all my years of writing and editing, he is the only one I’ve met. I thus declare this to be an unbreakable rule, despite having met one exception.

Reading develops your inner ear as a writer. In fact, one of the exercises I recommend to writers as they begin their writing session (especially if they have trouble getting started) is to type word for word from the lines of one of their favorite books. They will soon pick up the rhythms of the writer and will (hopefully) continue writing in that desirable rhythm for the rest of their writing session.

Along the same line, the February issue of Christian Communicator has an article on author Dandi Daley Mackall in which she advises writers, “Read. Read like crazy. It gets the story form in your head.” Yes, that’s true. And reading also develops your inner ear.

3. A strong beginning to whatever you write—novel, article, or non-fiction book—is essential. You may have to wrestle for days to get it just right—but do it. Find those magical first lines that not only effectively invite the reader into the world of your manuscript, but keeps them there. Magical opening lines are important to you, too, not just the reader. Finding the perfect opening lines is like finding the exact loose thread in a ball of yarn that when you pull it, all the rest of the yarn (hey, that’s a pun!) follows along. In my workshops I offer up some examples of great opening lines. Below are just a few. As you read, notice how you as a reader will almost certainly go on from this line to the next…and then the next…and so on until you reach the last page. In almost every case below, you reach the end of the sentence with a “why?” or “what happens next?” on your mind. Also notice that by “magical” I’m not referring to something other worldly. For the most part, these opening lines are quite simple and uncomplicated. The point is that they arouse interest in the reader.

Author: Benchley, Peter
Title: Jaws
The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail.

Author: Bronte, Charlotte
Title: Jane Eyre
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

Author: du Maurier, Daphne
Title: Rebecca
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again.

Author: Marquez, Gabriel Garcia
Title: One Hundred Years of Solitude
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Author: Tolkien, J.R.R.
Title: The Hobbit
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Author: Tyler, Anne
Title: Breathing Lessons
Maggie and Ira Moran had to go to a funeral in Deer Lick, Pennsylvania.

True, some first lines that grab me may not grab you, but the idea is to create a strong enough opening that you will capture enough readers that will follow you to the end of the book…and into your next one as well.

4. There is much debate about whether it’s better to be a “plotter” or a “pantser.” The plotters are those who plot out their book (usually a novel) well in advance and pretty much stick to the plot as they write. A pantser is so-named because he writes by the seat of his pants, seldom knowing that comes next. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser really doesn’t matter. Do what works for you. But what I do want you to commit to is to write your crummy first draft in its entirety before you go back to edit.

This rule, like some of the others, is controversial. Many successful writers feel they must get every line perfect before moving on to the next line. That may be well and good if you’re an experienced writer, but I’m supposing most of you are in the early or mid-stage of your writing career. For that reason—especially if you tend toward procrastination, as do many writers—you really need to get the story down on paper in its entirely, then go back and do as many subsequent drafts as necessary. I think Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird suggests six or seven drafts. Do not send a first or even second draft of your work to an editor or agent you’re trying to impress! If possible, let the manuscript sit for a couple of weeks or more after that first draft, then go back and do the next draft.

5. Like many writers, I collect good quotes about writing. One of my favorite relating to the writing of fiction comes from author Sinclair Lewis. He said, “People read fiction for emotion, not information.” If you write fiction, please remember that you’re not just telling a story or passing along information. Your goal is to emotionally move your reader. Preferably to tears. Doesn’t matter if they’re tears of sadness or tears of joy. Just make sure they’re not tears of boredom. The best way to satisfy a reader is touch their emotions in an unforgettable way. Do this and you’ll have a ready buyer for your next book. Of course, non-fiction can also move the reader, depending on the genre. A memoir certainly should move us, but not a how-to book. Know what will move your target reader and aim your entire story toward that point or points where you know you can have them reaching for the Kleenex.

Although I’ve limited my unbreakable “rules” to five for the purposes of this blog, there are certainly many more. The best rules, though, are the ones that work for you. When you find such a rule, add it to your list of unbreakable rules.

11 replies
  1. Patti Hill says:

    Nick, you’re brilliant and have tons more experience than I do, but you’re not fussy-pants me. I’ve tried writing a crummy first draft with no editing, and I nearly lost my mind. Compromise goes something like this: Write a day’s worth of truly awful stuff. (This isn’t as many pages as I would like. I have the attention span of a gnat.) I revise those pages the next day before I pound out another day’s worth of truly awful stuff. This keeps compulsive Patti happy while she subconsciously plays with her writing for that day. We MUST keep compulsive Patti happy. Very messy. Very messy indeed, if we don’t.

  2. Richard Mabry says:

    Nick, great advice. I’ll have to join schizophrenic Patti in saying that your rule #4 doesn’t totally work for me, but after all, you said it was somewhat controversial. Since I’m a confirmed pantser, the form of my draft lives in my head and is subject to change. I use a hybrid method wherein I revise the preceding scene before starting in for the next day’s work. That keeps the plot fresh in my mind while allowing some light editing as I go along. Of course, there’s a lot more editing of the whole thing later. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Nick says:

    Patti and Richard, do you put the final touches on every page before going to the next? I was thinking of a couple of well-known authors who insist on perfecting the manuscript page by page, not writing page 7 until page 6 is perfect. I think that’s not a good way to do it, especially if you’re new to writing. Get the thing down. I think more writers never finish a manuscript because they give up before they’ve gotten the whole thing down. If it works for you, go for it. But for most of us, I think we need to spill our guts on the page, then go back and clean up the mess.

  4. Kathy says:

    Oh! I remember talking to you at Writing for the Soul one year. You asked me if my manuscript would make readers cry. As I revised after that, I made sure it did. Some readers pretend to hate me for that, but they are asking for the next book. So, thank you.

  5. Patti Hill says:

    Absolutely not, Nick, or I would never finish a novel. I do have a rather clean manuscript at the end of the first draft with only tweaking needed. Truth be told, I follow the tradition of William Faulkner (Ha!). He would revise his novels as he waited to read from the published copies in front of an audience. I’ve gotten so I can edit as I read. It’s good to be able to revise on the fly.

  6. Richard Mabry says:

    Nick, No, you’re absolutely right. When I say I do a “light edit” on the last section before starting to write again, it’s just that–no true edit. That comes later, and in the form of at least two more passes and sometimes more. It’s probably a matter of semantics, and I certainly agree with your premise: first get it down, later get it right.

  7. Kathy Bailey says:

    This is good, Nick. As usual I am late to respond because I don’t check your site every day. But I am here now. I agree in principle with finishing a draft before you edit, but I don’t always do it. Sometimes the idea for a change comes to me in mid-draft and I go with it. I also edit on the fly with my critique group — when they are finished with a chapter I go home and put their suggestions to work, because I know I’ll never get to it otherwise. I don’t do deliberate editing until the draft is done, I mean “sit down and edit no matter what,” but I don’t leave things alone if I know they should be changed. I wouldn’t necessarily say rules are made to be broken, but they are made to be tweaked to what works for you when it’s working. But yeah, definitely, finish a manuscript!

  8. Kathy Bailey says:

    I like the part about openings/beginnings. Just taught a workshop on them with my crit group. There’s also Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and Tolstoy, “Happy families are alike.” And Mickey Spillane. “Dead. That’s what she was, dead.”
    I read a lot of cozy mysteries, and here are a couple of the examples I used in the workshop.
    “Ghost On the Run”
    Carolyn Hart
    Cozy mystery
    I passed Julia Child’s kitchen and breathed deeply. The aromas were Heavenly. Julia still loves butter. I was in a rambling mood on another golden day in Paradise. As my thoughts flitted, so did my presence. Heaven makes joyful pursuits quite easy. If I envision a place or activity I am there, everything from white-water rafting to a romantic tango in the moonlight…
    Do I sense bewilderment? Heaven? Julia Child’s kitchen? A tango in the moonlight? Oh, yes, all of that and more. If we haven’t met before, I’ll introduce myself. I am Bailey Ruth Raeburn, late of Adelaide, Oklahoma. Bobby Mac and I arrived in Heaven when our cabin cruiser, the faithful Serendipity, sank during a storm in the Gulf…We lived a happy life, which has only been better since arriving in Heaven.”

    “Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains”
    Catriona McPherson
    Cozy mystery

    “I had been standing under this tree, against these railings, looking at that house from the corner of my eye for almost ten minutes now while I waited for my heart to stop dancing.
    It was beginning to dawn on me that I waited in vain. I scanned the windows once more — all seventeen of them; I had counted — but I saw no movement anywhere. I glanced along the street both ways hoping for an excuse to abandon the enterprise, and found none. I looked down at myself, wondering whether my disguise would pass muster, and concluded that it would. So, ignoring the watery feeling in my legs, at last I marched across the road, mounted the steps and pulled hard on the bell.”
    These hooked ME in and I shared them with my group.

  9. Kathy Bailey says:

    Here’s the opening from the Oregon Trail novel I am shopping around now.
    May 1846
    St. Joseph, Mo.

    Why him, why here, why now?
    Seemed like her heart could pound its way out of her, from deep under the layers of her camisole, crisp white blouse and light wool jacket. The world slowed around her, the commotion from the street, the murmur of voices in the hotel lobby. She was only dimly aware of Wagonmaster Pace Williams’ blurted, “You know each other?”
    There was only him, Michael Moriarty, standing there bigger than life. But then he always had been.
    Michael. Six feet four, shoulders straining at his checked flannel shirt, black curls springy from a recent washing. His big hands, so efficient, now helpless at his sides. The hard planes of his face the same, and those cobalt blue eyes, now staring at her in disbelief. “Caroline?” he repeated. “You’re our cook?”

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