Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Writing Guides:: How many rules do we really need?

It is almost November and you know what that means: Writing advice season is about to begin.  It seems to get here earlier every year. The stores are already stocking up with new keyboards and copies of Bird by Bird.  The interwebs are humming with tweets tagged #amwriting and Pinterest boards are filling up with pictures of typewriters and inspirational quotes, some of which I created.

And the lists. Oh my goodness, the lists!

This morning, a friend sent me a link to Neil Gaiman's "8 Rules of writing" over at the Brainpickings blog. I read them because I can't resist that sort of thing, and he entered my brain and wandered the halls, flipping light switches, sliding down stair railings, and poking through the cupboards until he came to the boiler room where all the rest of the "Rules of Writing" have been camping out.

Neil's list was probably greeted at the door by Elmore Leonard's "10 Rules" and introduced around the room by Zadie Smith's "10 Rules" before taking down a copy of Stephen King's "On Writing" and settling in for a nice nap.

I hear there's a great poker game down there on Sunday nights, but they don't invite me.

Writing advice in list form may or may not have begun with Elmore Leonard's famous piece in the New York Times, but he heralded the explosion of such lists.

You would not believe how many lists there are in that tiny room. I'm not even sure myself. Most of them have more to do with surviving life as a writer than how to put words on a page, which is part of what makes Neil's list so commendable -- every item on the list is about writing.  Neil's entire list boils down to "Why are you looking for permission from me? Get out there and write something!"

Not all of them do, which is a problem in my view.

For one thing, lists are deceptive, slippery little beasts. Reading them feels like learning, as though by following the steps of other more successful writers their success will rub off on us. And creating them feels good and making tick marks next to the items is weirdly addictive. We all make to-do lists sometimes just to have the satisfaction of checking things off. I do it all the time and so do you.

Yes you do; don't lie to a blog post.

Everyone does it. Why? Because it gives us the strange illusion of accomplishing something whether we have or not. And writers make it worse because we are so prone to doing the same thing with other people's lists!

Who else does that?

And that is the danger of the many and multiplying lists, even those by authors we like or admire. Reading about writing gives us a false sense of accomplishment. Much like research and blogging, it can give us something to do instead of writing that still feels like we're accomplishing something. I hear people around me pitch list-making as an organizational tool, but I suspect that for most writers at least it's really a procrastination tool.

Which plays handily into the internet's twofold mission to facilitate list-making and disseminate pornography. Procrastination and self-gratification.

At risk of undercutting my own point, I will close with a list of my own.
1. Apply butt to chair.
2. Apply words to page.
3. The chair is optional.
Whether you are trying NaNoWriMo for the first time, or if you're on your tenth novel, that's all you need. I've said this several times here and elsewhere, but it bears repeating: any list or advice book that does not boil down to "Writers aren't writers if they don't write something" is bad advice on the face of it.


  1. Great post, Scott. What is it about writers that make us such fantastic procrastinators? We are so efficient!


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).