Writing, people claim, is the most personal of the arts. Yet it seems everybody has a bunch of rules for you to follow about how to do it their way.
In fact, coming up with a set of rules about how to be a writer seems to be as important a part of convincing people you’re a “real” writer as actually writing things. (In fact, a number of people skip the writing career part and settle right into careers writing and promoting sets of rules.)
A few examples from writers I admire:
There are as many sets of rules for writers as there are writers, and screenwriting is particularly amenable to people coming up with rules and formulas for how to do it.
There are legions books dedicated to screenwriting rules, templates and formulas. The (in)famous Robert McKee “Story” book, Syd Field’s “Screenplay”, Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat”, Richard Walter & Lew Hunter representing UCLA’s approach, David Howard & Paul Gullio bringing you the USC rules, Christopher Vogler channeling Joseph Campbell, William Goldman eschewing pedagogy and focusing on funny anecdotes, Linda Seger and John Truby and many others promoting their consultancies, and so on.
I’ve read pretty much every piece of writing pedagogy that’s in-print in the English language, and two things are very clear to me:
1. In general, everyone says the same thing.
2. In particular, everyone pitches you their own personal style.
Unfortunately, nobody but you can figure out which of the particulars work for you. Do you only find inspiration when writing in red sharpie on butcher’s paper? Did an adjective kill your parents when you were a child, and now you’ve sworn revenge upon them for all time? Must every paragraph you write contain the word “burrito”? Only you can figure those things out about yourself.
But the generalities can be summarized, and by doing so I will not only potentially save you hundreds of dollars on books and classes and template software (I kid, you’re going to buy all that stuff anyway), but I will also establish street cred as a “real” writer, one with rules and everything!
1. Write what interests you. If you don’t like your idea very much, nobody else will, either. Writing something because it’s what’s cool or commercial when you’re not really into it won’t get you a sale, it’ll cause you to waste your time writing bad work because you don’t care about it enough to make it great.
2. Don’t be boring. Since I am first and foremost a screenwriter I also call this my “Zero Act Structure Theory,” because too many novices interpret structure teachings that focus on certain key moments to mean you can half-ass all the other moments. Wrong. Every moment needs to be interesting, and have a clear (to you) reason for being in the story — not just the “important ones”. In other words, if you know it’s filler so will the audience.
3. Be concise. Writers, professional readers and writing pedagogues love to have opinions about specific ways to do this (Elmore Leonard’s rules are all nit picks around this point, for example). But rules about details are matters of style and personality, not just yours, but that of each individual story and character. The main point is to say exactly what needs to be said and no more. Exactly what that is must be determined on a case-by-case basis.
4. Always take critique, rarely take advice. Even other “better” writers don’t know how to write what you want to say in your personal style, but even the least sophisticated audience member can clue you in to when you’re not succeeding. You also need to be smart about your analysis of the critique — as often as not the bit someone says isn’t working is fine, it’s a related set-up or pay-off that’s missing or botched. And don’t be defensive about hearing critique. Even if someone is a complete jerk about how they tell you what they aren’t connecting with in your writing, try to learn from the critique anyway (and never ask that person to critique your work again — a cruel attitude about giving feedback is never warranted).
5. Write, rewrite, then finish. Write as often as possible. There is also a lot of specific advice out there about how to compel yourself to do that. Egg timers, solitude, only using pencil, heavy drinking. I feel starting often comes down to this: either you need to rearrange your schedule and drop some commitments because you using your time and energy elsewhere, or you need to accept that “the first draft of anything is shit” and not get stuck trying to write perfect first drafts. Finishing comes down to accepting that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”, and being able to observe when you’re just making changes, not making anything better. When you are, you’re done. (You can always come back to it later if you really want to.)
There you go. My “five rules of writing”. All sufficiently vague that there’s no point in anyone taking issue with any of them.
Unfortunately, those are the only types of creative rules that are universal. Everything else is self-knowledge and thousands of hours of practice.
They do seem utterly devoid of any suggestions about HOW to do those things. But that’s not quite true. Everything you really need to do is in there: write often and seek out people to critique your work. Whatever other rules and methodologies you experiment with, the artistic growth that actually gets you anywhere is coming from those two things.
Finally, notice that this advice also applies to pretty much any creative discipline. In fact, I apply the same basic rules to filmmaking, music production, CGI, writing software, and photography (which for me are interconnected in various ways, anyway).
So if you’re a music producer, musician, director, producer, CG artist, photographer, etc. just copy this page and use “find and replace” to swap out your thing for “write” and “writing” and you’ll save me the trouble of rewriting this for those domains.