My top five rules for writers

It’s eighteen years since my first few books were published and I’ve had a very varied and productive writing career ever since. I’ve also got to know lots of other authors, at various stages in their careers; I’ve been on many workshops and read many books about the art and craft of writing.

Books, poems, magazine articles... my varied writing life
Books, poems, magazine articles… my varied writing life

Although I’ve experienced occasional bouts of frustration, stress and despondency over the years in relation to the business side of things, I’ve always felt happy and confident in my writing, and I think that’s largely down to finding and following my five golden rules:

Focus on the big picture

The real work-in-progress is yourself as a writer – every word, draft and manuscript you produce contributes to that. Therefore even if a piece of work is turned down by publishers or agents, that doesn’t mean it’s been a waste of time, because it’s added to the sum of your writing experience. (In fact, rejected MSS will often go on to have their day – they’re eminently recyclable)

Don’t push the river

Creative work has its own rhythm, requiring fallow time as well as pondering, planning, drafting and redrafting. If you try to write a book before it’s ready, you’ll come up against blocks and difficulties; if you learn to be patient, and allow the ideas to fully form up in your mind before you begin, the writing will flow.

Go with the flow
Go with the flow

Don’t expect to please everyone

We’re all different, so we all enjoy different themes and voices in our reading, and that includes publishers and agents. If you get rejections, take notice of constructive criticism but don’t take it personally. Ditto if you get bad reviews.

Understand your soul’s needs

Some people want to write because they have a burning desire to tell their own personal story, or to achieve celebrity, or to become a public speaker. Some people hope to earn a lot of money. Others may simply want to be able to create objects that please them. Identifying what you want from being a writer will help you to create achievable goals and lasting satisfaction. I’ve written about this on the blog, in What kind of writer do you want to be?

Life-coaching techniques could help you to identify your writing goals
Life-coaching techniques could help you to identify your writing goals

Be grateful

As soon as you start to write, whether you are published or not, you begin to see life through a writer’s eyes. You notice everything. Snippets of overheard conversations; the story in a stranger’s face; the movement of light in leaves. You uncover the unconscious narrative streams that flow in your own psyche, and so magnify your experience of everyday life.

The story in a stranger's face
The story in a stranger’s face

These are the rules which have underpinned the whole of my writing life. What are your writing rules?

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27 thoughts on “My top five rules for writers”

  1. I particularly like the comment about writing intensifying one’s appreciation of everyday life. It’s so true and so valuable! It was something I loved about your courses.

    1. Hi Sue – how lovely to see you here! That’s the big one for me, too – the way creative work magnifies and deepens our experience of the everyday 🙂

      1. Yes, I loved this observation and all the other suggestions. Thanks for another inspiring piece, Jenny. It came at a time when I needed it (:-).

  2. I love those synchronicities, Melanie. I have several blogs I follow which will often give me the exact thing I need to hear when I need to hear it. I’m so glad my piece this morning has been timely for you. Magic!

  3. Jenny My favourite bit of advice here is “Be grateful.” Even as I’m just about to start on (yet another|) rewrite, this time suggested by my agent, I’m grateful that it gives me another opportunity to revisit characters and places I love.

  4. Well put Joe! It all starts from love, of the characters, the places, the writing process itself – and love is the greatest blessing in life 🙂

  5. I’ll be 77 in July. I’ve been writing non-fiction articles (published) over the years, here and there, I’m working on fiction and poetry now, but I feel that I’ve started too late.

  6. It’s never too late to take a new direction in writing, Connie – look at Mary Wesley, whose phenomenal success as an adult novelist started in her seventies! The only problem is if you feel it’s too late – you need to change that way of thinking

  7. What a beautiful post! This actually made me go goosebumpy – it is very pertinent at the moment. I haven’t really had any writers’ rules, Jenny, but I’m going to print yours out and pin them up somewhere, because they have reminded me of what is important. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  8. Hi Abi – I was reading your latest post when this comment pinged through! I’m delighted that it’s been timely for you – this is why we blog, isn’t it? Now I’m going to skip back over to yours and leave a comment there 🙂

  9. I should have included ‘to help other people’ in my examples of the different drivers that might be at work in a writer – that certainly was at the forefront for me when I was writing children’s self-help, and I feel it strongly in your blog (which obviously does help lots of people)

  10. Dear Jenny,

    Your rules are helpful. I think that each writer needs different rules. Some people are always calm and deal with frustration easily, but other people get depressed every time a rejection letter comes. Some people have trouble sitting down every day and getting some writing work done. Some people get too obsessed with their writing, while other people don’t focus enough on being an author. So I would hesitate to give rules to all writers.

    Best wishes!

    Janet Heller
    Website is http://www.redroom.com/author/janet-ruth-heller

    1. I’m totally with you there, Janet – that’s why I titled this ‘my writing rules.’ These are the main things I personally needed to learn in order to become a happy writer, because when I started out I was extremely sensitive to rejection, impossibly impatient, chasing goals other people valued rather than the things that mattered to me etc. I love hearing about the challenges and solutions other writers have found in the course of their careers, because we really are all so different. I have lots of friends who might say they’ve learnt they have to force themselves to stay at the desk for three hours every day, or produce a thousand words before lunch-time or whatever… which would kill the whole thing dead for me!

  11. Hi Jenny the old adage rings true that you can’t please everybody all the time (or even some of the time). I am learning more and more to listen to my soul in everything and not just writing. It speaks a truth that can’t be compared to anything else I’ve experienced. And always be grateful for all that you have and experience. Your life (my life) is a much happier journey. Your philosophy Jenny is a great one and I’m glad I have adopted a similar one.

  12. Listening to your soul in everything – yes, that’s what I try to do too, Brian. It’s one of the reasons I love my dreams, because there the soul’s voice is most clear and direct, and also my writing, which speaks the soul in the same way if we can tap into the instinct of it and not be pulled off course by other people’s priorities and values (which of course may be their own soul’s voice, and right for them). Thank you for commenting 🙂

  13. I agree with you 100%, but I do know that there are writers who use the ‘Seat of Your Pants’ method of writing. They get an idea and start writing right away. They let it go where it will and then chisel out the details after the first draft is complete. Not sure how they do that, but they do.
    I have six rules:
    Write
    Read
    Write
    Read
    Write
    Read
    and it is good to read outside your genre or area of expertise to give you a well rounded education on the craft.

    1. I love the idea of the ‘seat of your pants’ method of writing – I wish I could do it! At the very least, I need a general sense of direction when I start out. Great rules, Rob!

  14. I don’t see myself as a “seat of your pants” writer, but some of the best writing I have done is when I have an hour to write or have a deadline looming.

  15. Excellent! Can you give a link to your blog here in the comments? I’ll be interested to read your posts

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