I want to talk today about a topic I’ve been pondering for years. YEARS. It’s Heinlein’s Rules of Writing.
If this is new to you, it’s a framework for writing success that consists of 5 rules established by Robert A. Heinlein—aeronautical engineer and pioneering science fiction author. Writers who ascribe to his process swear by it on a Crossfit/Natural Oils level. They’re prolific, successful, and happy with their work. We’re talking authors like Dean Wesley Smith, with 150 novels and hundreds of short stories written while following the rules.
Heinlein first outlined his rules in Of Worlds Beyond: The Science of Science Fiction Writing (1947). In his contribution to the compilation, he wrote the following, largely as an afterthought to his article:
“I’m told that these articles are supposed to be some use to the reader. I have a guilty feeling that all of the above may have been more for my amusement than for your edification. Therefore I shall chuck in as a bonus a group of practical, tested rules, which, if followed meticulously, will prove rewarding to any writer.
- You must write.
- You must finish what you start.
- You must refrain from rewriting (except to editorial demand).
- You must put it on the market.
- You must keep it on the market until sold.“
They look so simple, and most of them make a lot of sense. But some of it flies in the face of what many of us have learned. And some of Heinlein’s devotees would say this is exactly the problem—that we’ve educated ourselves out of the creative process that allows our brains to generate ideas and transfer them to paper in story form. To a certain degree, they’re not wrong.
But I’d also suggest that the writing world is different today than it was in 1947. The way we’re taught to write in school, the availability of self-publishing options, the vast array of writing resources on the market (of varying quality)—these are just a few of the things that have changed for writers since Heinlein’s day, and I believe changes like these have made it harder for most people in 2021 to follow Heinlein’s process.
Personally, I don’t agree with every rule, but each one contains a nugget of wisdom—principles that can help any writer accelerate their journey toward authorial success. So if you’re looking for a new process, a kick in the pants, or even a friendly debate about what works and what doesn’t, allow me to expend a few extra words today to share how I believe Heinlein’s Rules can help you.
And if you love Heinlein’s Rules as they are, forgive me for the liberties I’m about to take ;).
This is as true today as it ever was. If we want to grow into great writers, the bulk of our time must be spent writing. Not researching, or editing, attending conferences, marketing, etc. All of these are important, but writers can get so caught up in everything else that they spend very little time doing the one habit that’s non-negotiable. Acknowledging this can keep us from getting derailed and help us maintain focus on what really matters.
2. Finish What You Start
Absolutely true. This rule is necessary because it forces the writer to not give up when things get tough, to see the story through to its end. It’s also a good rule of thumb for anyone who’s easily distracted by Shiny New Ideas and has more partial works than completed ones.
Granted, sometimes it’s smart to take a break from a story and work on something else. That can be exactly what you need when you’re stuck. But I’d say it’s generally a good idea at some point to return to that first story and get ‘er done because the writing itself is the best teacher. The more we struggle and persevere, the more we learn and improve. And, honestly, those of us who want to make a career out of writing need to get in the habit of finishing.
3. Refrain from Rewriting (Except to Editorial Demand)
Ack. This is where I get hung up. The Heinlein’s Rules devotees I’ve spoken to are able to adhere pretty strictly to this rule. They write the story then move on to the next one. Or they give it one or two revision passes at most.
I shudder to think of what my stories would look like after only one round of revision. I. SHUDDER. Along with anyone who reads those stories. But there are a few principles here that we shouldn’t ignore:
1. Too much revision can kill your story
2. Too much revision = not enough writing (see Rule #1)
3. Not all feedback should be applied to your story
Many authors get stuck in the revision stage, spending months going over a story and making changes. It starts to feel overworked, and we get sick of our own work, which is never great for the creative process. Too much revision can also result in you killing your character’s voice as you fiddle and fuss with the text.
Even so, the vast majority of writers don’t start off writing perfectly crafted stories. They have blind spots and areas of weakness. Their stories need revision. So I’ve got a couple of amendments for this rule.
Set a limit on how many revision rounds you’ll do, and stick to it. Once you’ve finished those rounds—even if the product isn’t as good as you’d like—move on to the next story. The more you write, the better you’ll get at crafting stories, and the less revision will be needed in the long run.
My new friend Harvey Stanbrough, who adheres to Heinlein’s Rules (with much success, I might add), shared a great bit of advice with me about how he shortens the revision learning curve.
“I recommend having one technique in mind—for example, pacing or dialogue or depth of description, etc.— as you begin each story. That’s how you improve. Practice and learning, learning and practice.”
I love this because it’s something authors can do in the drafting stage to accelerate their learning in a given area, which eventually results in less revision.
Another thing Harvey recommends is the use of first readers. Immediately upon completion of his first draft, he emails it to certain readers. Some, he says, are writers, but some aren’t. All that matters is that they’re avid readers, and they’re not looking for certain things. They’re just reading for entertainment, and if something pops out at them or they notice anything that’s off, they let him know.
There’s obviously a benefit to being advised by writers who are farther along the path than we are—people who can help us see what we don’t yet know and school us on the more complicated aspects of storytelling. If you’ve hung around our blog at all, you’ve heard us natter on about the benefit of critique groups and getting feedback for your work. No need to flog that topic further.
But if I can generalize here, I’m finding that many readers don’t care about the rules of grammar or which dialogue tags are used. They just don’t. They care that the story is entertaining or relevant or holds their interest. Truth is, if you’re a fiction author, those people are your audience, not the writers. So getting feedback from regular, run-of-the-mill readers can also be super beneficial in letting us know how what we need to work on and how close our work is to being done.
Note that Heinlein doesn’t say anything here about editing. You can write an excellent story, but if it’s got typos, misspellings, and the like, you’re going to lose readers. So it’s my opinion that every story can benefit from a copyeditor’s eye. That you can do while remaining true to the spirit of the revision rule.
You Must Put It on the Market
Again, I say Ack.
When Heinlein was writing, the only real way to put your work on the market was to submit it to a book or magazine publisher. If they didn’t like it, or if it wasn’t up to par in terms of quality, then it didn’t get published. No harm done.
But there’s no one in self-publishing to close the door on a story before it hits the shelves. Literally anyone can publish any book, no matter how poorly written it is. And with that, harm can be done. You can’t undo crappy reviews. Like an ill-advised tattoo, those reviews of your early books are forever.
This is where the writer’s gut comes in. A lot of the time, we know when a story isn’t ready. When we’re not sure, reader feedback can push us in the right direction. When they’re saying things like, “I didn’t understand this part,” or “What happened to the neighbor from chapter one?” or “I kind of lost interest here,” you know you’re not quite there.
Becca’s two cents: Not every book should be published. But the more you write, the more publishable books you’ll be able to create. And as you learn along the way, you’ll get better at knowing when your work is ready.
Keep It on the Market until Sold
In the old days (when submitting to publishers was the only option for getting a book to market), this was a good suggestion, encouraging authors not to give up too early. We’ve all heard Rowling’s story. Imagine if she had thrown in the towel after the first few rejections. So if you’re wanting to publish traditionally, it’s not a bad idea to keep sending out submissions.
When you’re self-publishing, though…it depends. If you’ve had a book for sale for a while and it’s not selling, it’s probably not going to sell until something changes. Maybe you grow in your craft and start writing better books that start selling, and then your audience discovers your earlier works. Or a very currenty event occurs that ties into your story’s theme and all of a sudden people are looking for stories like yours. So in the case of a book not selling because it (or you) just haven’t been discovered yet, there’s no harm in leaving it on market.
But it’s always possible that your book isn’t selling because you published it before it was ready. For indie authors, having that book out there could cause harm because people who read it won’t be inclined to buy your other books. And if they slap it with a bad review, other potential readers can be turned off, too. So if a book is getting panned, I’d say it’s a good idea to put it away and…that’s right. Write the next book.
No writing process is perfect for every person; this is why there are so many of them out there. Regarding Heinlein’s Rules, people who follow them religiously won’t be happy with the liberties I’ve taken. And that’s ok. If the process works for them, they should run with it. No alterations needed.
But for others, I would say that there’s no harm in tweaking. The rules have good bones. If you can’t get 100% on board, accommodations like these just might propel you along your journey to writing success.
If you’re interested in learning more about Heinlein’s Rules, check out these resources:
Questions? Suggestions? Flaming Bags of Poo?
Hit me in the comments.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.