Some time ago I was asked by Writers Digest to participate in a feature with nine other writing teachers. We’d each take a position on a well-known writing “rule.” Then another expert would be matched up taking the opposite side.
It was a great idea, a lot of fun. It’s always good to think through the fundamentals of the craft. I was told to pick a common teaching I was for, and one I was against. Here they are:
PRO: Turn Off Your Inner Editor
Writing is a lot like golf, only without the beautiful scenery and checkered pants.
To get any good at the game, you have to practice like mad, usually under the watchful eye of a good teacher. You have to think a thousand little thoughts as you work on your various shots.
But when you get out on the course you must put all those thoughts aside. If you don’t, you’ll freeze up. You’ll play rigid.
What you have to do is train yourself to go with the flow and the feel, trusting what you’ve learned. After a round is the time to think about what went wrong and devise ways to practice on the weak areas.
Same goes for writing. You have to write freely when you write, and think about the craft afterward. Write your scene without overthinking it. Let the characters live and breathe. After you’re done, read it over and fix things. I like to check my previous day’s work, edit it lightly, then move on.
Study writing books and articles, get feedback from readers or a critique group. But when you write, write. That’s how you truly learn the craft.
Practice writing for five or ten minutes without stopping. Write anything—essays, journal entries, prose poems, diatribes, stream-of-consciousness memoirs, letters to yourself. You’ll soon learn to keep that inner editor at bay when you’re actually writing your fiction.
And the best part is you don’t have to wear checkered pants to do it.
CON: Write Every Day
Don’t think that you have to write every day.
Yes, I’m a big believer in word quotas. One of the earliest, and perhaps still the best pieces of advice I ever got was to set a quota of words and stick to it.
I used to do a daily count. But a thing called life would often intrude and I’d miss a day. Or there were times when writing seemed like playing tennis in the La Brea tar pits, and that’d be another day I’d miss.
Such days would leave me surly and hard to live with.
Then I switched to a weekly quota and have used it ever since. That way, if I miss a day, I don’t beat myself up. I write a little extra on the other days. I use a spreadsheet to keep track and add up my word count for the week.
I also intentionally take one day off a week. I call it my writing Sabbath. I find that taking a one-day break charges my batteries like nothing else. Sunday is the day I’ve chosen. On Monday I’m refreshed and ready to go. Plus, my projects have been cooking in my subconscious. The boys in the basement, as Stephen King puts it, are hard at work while I’m taking time off.
I also advocate taking a whole week break from writing each year. Use this time to assess your career, set goals, make plans—because if you aim at nothing, there’s a very good chance you’ll hit it.
What craft fundamentals do you stick to? Is there a so-called “rule” that you can live without?
Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. His popular books on fiction craft can be found here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him on