The Writers' Ten Commandments?

Posted by Derek Chamberlain on Tuesday, February 14, 2012 Under: From The Archives

In September 2010, Writer’s Digest put out their ‘Big Ten’ issue. If you don’t already have a copy, I highly recommend getting yourself one as it is, to date, one of the most interesting they’ve ever published. 

In it, among many other interesting ‘Ten’ themed articles, there is an article, “10 Experts’ Take on the Writer’s Rulebook”*, by ten well-known writers** on the Ten Rules in the Writer’s Rulebook — the Writer’s Ten Commandments. In the article, Writer’s Digest asked each of the writers to give a reason for following one of the rules and reason for breaking one of them. 

Before we get into just what the gist of their comments was, here are the ten rules they were writing about.

  1. Write what you know
  2. Hook your readers on page one
  3. Show, don’t tell
  4. Write “shitty first drafts”
  5. Write every day
  6. Kill your darlings
  7. Develop a thick skin
  8. Silence your inner critic
  9. Read what you like to write
  10. If you want to get rich, do something else

These are the rules, or tips, that are common to almost all writing books. Almost every writer out there has an opinion about these ten rules, whether for or against, and these often come up in interviews with writers about the way they write. They are especially well commented on by people who teach creative writing courses; and that, I think, might be the clue as to the great division between opinions about these rules. 

This comes out quite clearly in this article. Every single one of the writers, even those writing the reasons for breaking the rules, are actually for following them; up to a point. Both sides of the conversation interpret the rules in unique ways, and both those recommending following the rules and those recommending breaking them, give pretty much the same advice — Know the rules before you break them; learn how to write well before trying to break them; and, if you have to break them, do so imaginatively.  

The other point that comes across, and is actually expressed rather clearly by Nancy Kress, is that these rules are maxims rather than carefully delineated laws. For beginning writers, the maxim style makes them easy to remember and, hopefully, follow. But, like most maxims, they have more in common with zen koans than with biblical commandments. They are the visible green shoots of a large, and largely unseen, network of complex thought. Calling them rules is misleading.

It becomes obvious, once you realize that both sides of the debate are actually talking about the hidden network of thought rather than the visible ‘rule’, that the rules aren’t really rules, they’re guidelines to good writing. Neither following them nor ignoring them matters as much as doing it well. The “rules” do not guarantee good writing, following them badly will result in just as bad writing as not following them at all. The one rule everyone agrees on is the one that isn’t even mentioned, but comes through all the same. This rule states: Hone your craft and expand your imagination. Think carefully, and imaginatively, about the rules, because only by doing this can you produce great writing that will fulfill the true spirit of the Writer’s Ten Commandments. 

* Jessica Strawser & Zachary Petit, Writer’s Digest, September 2010

** The “experts” were: Steve Almond, James Scott Bell, Sheila Bender, John Dufresne, Natalie Goldberg, Jerry B. Jenkins, N.M. Kelby, Nancy Kress, Donald Maass, and John Smolens.

In : From The Archives 

Tags: writing "rules of writing" "writer's digest" "article review" 
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Meet the scribbler

I'm a writer, editor, indie publisher, and dedicated Magic Spreadsheet user. Originally from Adelaide, Australia, I've been living in Japan since 1995. I've had a life-long interest in writing and in speculative fiction. My first book was published in mid-2014.
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