There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one can agree what they are.
– Somerset Maugham
When I tweeted this quote some weeks ago, a friend suggested I use it as a starting point for a blog post. I thought it was a great idea because it would be my opportunity to spin this concept on its head a little.
It may be cheating, but my rules assume that you have a good grasp on grammar. You are well read, especially in the type of writing you are interested in. When you read, you read with the mindset of a writer. You analyze what works and what doesn’t.
Every writer has a reason why she or he writes, whether it is self expression, art, education, money, attention, or some combination. You have a good idea of what being a writer means to you.
With that out of the way, the first and foremost thing to know is …
Rule #1 : There are no rules that can’t be broken: Just write.
This is especially important when approaching the first few drafts. Depending on what you’re writing, it may be quite acceptable to boldly go where others wouldn’t dare and buck a principle of grammar, or to twist a convention of storytelling. If your experimental and innovative ideas don’t work as well as you wanted them to, it’s ok. Rarely is a piece of writing perfect on the first try. Some pieces are good just for the practice. Most, though, can benefit from treatment with Rule #2.
Rule #2: Edit, edit, edit.
After a first draft, put your piece away for a while. When you pick it up to work on it again, read it with the eye of a writer. It may take some practice, but you have to apply the same objectivity to your own writing as you would to someone else’s work. Are you really achieving the affect you are going for? Does a particular phrase work? Does the overall arc make sense?
Editing your own work requires humility. You can’t be so in love with your words that you can’t bear to change something if it doesn’t serve the greater good. It helps to show your work to trusted family members, friends, or writing colleagues for feedback. Hopefully, they can be specific and honest about what works for them and what doesn’t. Seek advice from a professional, if you need to.
Don’t take feedback personally but rather as a tool to rework your piece–not necessarily to change it in the way someone else would like it, but to make your intention clearer, whatever that may be.
I believe that a first draft is a broad sketch that only starts to show its true colors as a result of editing–rounds and rounds of editing that can take hours or days, let’s say for a blog post, or weeks, months, or years for other types of writing.
At a certain point, though, it’s time for rule #3.
Rule #3: Trust yourself to let it go.
This could be the hardest rule to follow. How do you know when your piece is finished? A feeling very much like relief washes over me, and my head feels like a weight has been lifted from it. There’s nothing more to add or subtract and I’m not tripping over awkward phrases. This is not a very scientific answer, to be sure. Everybody has their own way of determining when enough is enough. But at some point, it’s time to let it go and move on to the next project.
An even harder task, psychologically, is to trust that your work is good enough to release into the world. Logistically, it’s easy to blog it, submit it for publication, self published it, and take advantage of the many ways to share your craft with the rest of us.
So, there are my rules, for what they’re worth.
What are your rules?
[This post was included in the July 2012 edition of the Third Sunday Blog Carnival.]
© Sweepy Jean and Sweepy Jean Explores the (Webby) World, 2011