A dear friend of mine who has been writing since the 1980s once told me that there are no rules when it comes to writing. “A writer only writes for themselves and does their best to create the books they want to read.”
“Writing is not a social activity,” he said. “It’s solitary misery mostly, and there’s no way out. And there is no more pointless, nor better, way to spend a life.”
I agree with him for the most part, especially in that there is nothing quite like the doing and creating, of bringing new worlds to life, but I also think, rather than rules, there are some helpful guidelines which can get you started and keep you on track.
Here are ten (-ish) which have worked for me.
Number 1. Understand that there are no shortcuts when it comes to writing.
If you want to get something out there, you have to find the time to sit down and do the work. All of the very best writers, all the ones you love, are only so because they’ve put a lot of work in. It is incredibly rare to become an overnight success story. Prioritise your work and make time.
Number 2. Don’t wait. You don’t need to gain permission from anyone to write.
If you’re doubting yourself because you worry that you don’t have the talent, that’s okay. Maybe you don’t yet. But if you have passion and enthusiasm, often that’s better. You can learn the craft, but first you have to put the effort in. See, Number 1.
Number 3. The first draft is probably, maybe going to suck.
Yes, really. In fact, it might even be the worst story you will ever write. *record scratch…* Wait a second, that’s wrong! In reality, first drafts rarely suck because they contain great ideas, they just need a bit of polishing. The first draft is you telling yourself the story. Once the bones are down you can work on rebuilding. Remember, it’s impossible to edit an empty page.
Number 4. There will always be better and worse writers than yourself. Always.
You will get disheartened and maybe even jealous, but someone else’s achievements do not devalue yours. Celebrate all successes — yours and those of other writers — and don’t measure your own self worth by the opinions of others. If you want to improve, keep going. And take advantage of all the brilliant books and online classes available that can help you level-up your skills.
Number 5. Critique can be painful, but also useful.
Learn to listen to and learn from every piece of feedback you get, but don’t take criticism from someone you wouldn’t take advice from. Realise that your friends and family will probably not be honest with you and it is better to seek others’ opinions, especially those of your peers. Find your village and share your skills. Writing can be lonely but it doesn’t have to be.
Number 6. Set goals, stick to them, hold yourself accountable.
Don’t wait for massive bursts of inspiration, just start. There will never be a “perfect” time to write. Show up, show up, show up. Eventually the muse will show up too. Find a routine (or anti-routine) that works for you. Some writers say to write daily for a set amount of time. Some write early the morning, others scribble furiously at night. Try on many hats and see what fits you. Writing prompts or flash fiction exercises can be excellent warm-ups.
Number 7. Write the story you want to read, even if you’re not sure that anyone else will want to read it.
If it doesn’t excite you, it probably won’t excite others. Do what your heart tells you. Writing is an art and you are an artist. Paint pictures with your words. Write your damn story.
Number 8. Progress not perfection.
Finish every piece of work you start, then let it go and allow other people to read it. Read it again with fresh eyes and new thoughts. A mediocre story now might become something truly marvellous a little way down the road. Every single word you write is progress and nothing is ever wasted. In fact, that leads me to…
Number 8b. Hoard all your drafts and never delete anything.
Keep a “Potentials” folder where you toss all your old chapters, lines, ideas, rough sketches. Sometimes things edited from one story can become the foundation of a new one.
Number 9. Imposter Syndrome happens to everyone.
Absolutely every writer at some stage has suffered from Imposter Syndrome, even those “big” authors who you know and love, who have sold millions of copies and been added to bestseller lists. It’s perfectly normal. A lot of the time when you might be feeling your most scared and unsure, that’s when you are doing some of your best work.
Number 10. Rejections can really hurt, but they also show you tried.
If you decide to submit your work for publication, you must be prepared to receive more rejections than acceptances. Remember that selling stories relies just as much on luck as talent, and you cannot always know what an editor is looking for. It’s not personal, it’s just how it is. Keep writing, keep trying, don’t stop.