Rules (and resolutions) for writing

Have you seen Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing? It’s a good, practical list. I highly recommend checking it out. Some gems:

  • Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue
  • Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’
  • Keep exclamation marks under control
  • Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
  • Don’t go into great detail describing places and things

All good tips.

Inspired by Leonard, The Guardian asked authors to share their own rules. You can find rules from Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Ann Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James, and Al Kennedy here; and you can find even more rules from Hilary Mantel, Michael Moorcock, Michael Morpurgo, Andrew Motion, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Philip Pullman, Ian Rankin, Will Self, Helen Simpson, Zadie Smith, Colm Tóibín, Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters, and Jeannette Winterson here.

These are my 10 favorites. I plan to keep them in mind as I write (and finish my novel!) this year.

1. Finish the day’s writing when you still want to continue. —Helen Dunmore

2. Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea. —Richard Ford

3. Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other ­people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted. —PD James

4. Remember you love writing. It wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back. —AL Kennedy

5. Keep a light, hopeful heart. But ­expect the worst. —Joyce Carol Oates

6. Say no to things that tempt you away from your work. —Philip Pullman

7. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it. —Zadie Smith

8. Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one. Write dialogue that people would actually speak. —Rose Tremain

9. Cut like crazy. Less is more. I’ve ­often read manuscripts – including my own – where I’ve got to the beginning of, say, chapter two and have thought: “This is where the novel should actually start.” A huge amount of information about character and backstory can be conveyed through small detail. The emotional attachment you feel to a scene or a chapter will fade as you move on to other stories. Be business-like about it. —Sarah Waters

10. Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you ­finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die. —Anne Enright

Happy writing in the new year!


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