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3 Rules of Writing You Can Ignore (sort of)

I have made three rules of writing for myself that are absolutes: Never take advice. Never show or discuss a work in progress. Never answer a critic. --Raymond Chandler

Those of you who follow Excuse Editor on Facebook or Twitter know I love writing quotes. A daily dose of inspiration, humor, or education on the writing life can be just the jolt so-so writing needs to change it into pages filled with witty dialogue, creative conflict and compelling characters. Especially if the quote feels like the Truth. But what if it doesn't?

As a writing coach, I know that each writer needs to find her own truth. A writing prompt that leads to a full-blown novel outline for one may barely be enough to squeeze out a few words from another. Whether you are a new or seasoned writer, you are bombarded with different "rules" on writing all of the time. The key is to develop your own rules to writing, and to be ready to edit them if they aren't working for you.

So, what about Chandler's rules? Here's my take...

Never Take Advice
I partially agree: You should lease with the option to buy. 

I love advice, even if it ends up being totally wrong for me. Part of the journey is learning how to find your way back after getting lost. You can always give the advice back to the universe once you've found your way back. Even the advice that has guided you along a clear path shouldn't be an "absolute". If your writing starts to change organically, but you are grasping on to old advice that no longer fits, you'll stunt the growth of your writing. Allow advice into your writing world, but allow it to breathe and nourish itself as it feeds you.

Never Show or Discuss a Work in Progress
If I wouldn't have found a writing group, I may not have gotten published. Not because all of the members were published authors (only a few were). Not because they gave me advice on where to submit my work (they didn't at first). It was because I was part of a group of people who called themselves "writers", and as a part of that group, I had a responsibility to myself to become the writer I wanted to be. There are times when I don't share. I still learn so much from the others that do. Some writers are very new, and the critiques include reminders for the experienced writers: "watch your POV (point of view), be careful of switching verb tenses." Some writers wait until they have edited their own work, or had it critiqued elsewhere before sharing with the group. It is a great way to "triple-check" that the work is as polished as the writer hopes.

I do agree with this rule in certain situations though. In this world of online critique groups, blogs, Facebook postings, and other instant sharing techniques, it is easy to want to show your most recent work to everyone. First of all, make sure that it is presentable. If you are looking for advice, it doesn't have to be perfect, but give it a once over for the obvious problems. Typos and such can distract the reader from your message, and you may not get the help you really need. Next, if you are planning on publishing your work in the future, don't share your work to open groups on the Internet. Depending on where you post it and the guidelines for the market you submit the finished product to, it may already be considered "published" and therefore ineligible for "first publication rights". 

Lastly, don't discuss your work into the ground before it has a chance to live. I've been guilty of this. It's fine to throw out your basic premise to a willing listener or two, but once you start talking out the entire story before you have written much of it down (or outlined it) the story idea loses its energy. How many times have you heard "wanna-be" writers say, "I've got this great book, it's all in my head." That's not the place for your book (besides, your brain could suffer from a bad paper-cut). If you truly need to talk it out, talk into a recorder, or better yet, into some speech-to-text software. This is action that brings you closer to a completed work, instead of just dreaming and talking about it.

Never Answer a Critic
This review and the comments the author made to the reviewer made the Internet rounds last month (fair warning, explicit language in the comments). The author should have either ignored the bad critique (you can't win 'em all) or used it to take an objective view of her writing. The book was self-published in e-reader format, so she could have made the corrections that the reviewer thought necessary. Then  MAYBE she could have added a comment or emailed the reviewer with THANKS for providing a review and, by the way, the spelling and grammar errors that distracted him from the story had been corrected. Instead, she went on an attack of the reviewer (who actually said some nice things about her story in the same review), giving ammunition to those who say self-publishing is for unprofessional amateurs. I can only hope she was having an extremely bad week and wish her well recovering from her blunder (who knows, it may have worked out as no-such-thing-as-bad-press, but I doubt it).

 I conjured up a real critic for this post last year, Simon Cowell. One of the comments that originally had me puffing up with pride reminded me that good critiques need to be taken with a grain of salt as well: "You're such an inspiration, Tina!". 

Ahhh, Thanks...Mom.

What rules do you set for your writing self? When do you know it is time to break them?

***Would you like more personalized help developing your rules for writing success? Check out the Excuse Editor coaching and consulting options. For a limited time, when you sign up for more information, you will receive the "Ideas into ACTION" mini-writing course for free!


  1. Hi Tina

    Right on with the rules, except for one variation:

    Take positive advice and ignore negative advice.

    I've generally only gained when I've done what people advised me, even if the gain was to learn something.

    I've generally regretted not doing what someone told me not to do, even if their advice was well meaning.

    Don't know why.



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