10 Universal Rules for Writers: can it be done?

There are tons of rules writers are frequently told to follow. Plenty of novice writers take these lists seriously. Nearly all these rules are essentially false, though some have a grain of truth to them. A few so-called “rules” are actually potentially harmful.

An example of the first type is: Never use adverbs. This is clearly just bad advice. You can open any novel by any brilliant stylist and instantly see that this author does in fact use adverbs. Obviously better (but unhelpful) advice would be: Never use adverbs badly. That can be expanded into more useful advice, but that takes a good many words, which is where the short-but-wrong forms of rules come from, I suppose.

An example of a harmful “rule” is: REAL writers write every single day. That’s terrible advice because it’s so often not true, and also can’t be true, and shouldn’t even be true. This is the kind of advice that makes people feel bad about themselves for no reason at all.

But! Is it possible to come up with ten rules for writers which are actually universal? True for all writers, all the time?

I’m betting no. Ten is probably too many. But let’s try.

1.In order to succeed as a writer, you must finish at least some of what you start.

That rule is truly universal. Unless you define “succeed” in some way that invalidates the rule, such as, “If I’m having fun, then I’m succeeding” or something like that. I would prefer not to stretch the definition that far. I would say that it is just 100% true that successful writers must finish some of what they start.

This leads into a second rule:

2. In order to succeed as a writer, you must make your work available for people, including people who are not personal friends, to read.

If you finish projects and stuff them into a drawer and no one but you ever sees them, then you may be a writer, but I don’t know that you can be said to be successful as a writer. Again, if you define “success” in some “but I’m having fun” way, then sure. But I am inclined to think that success as a writer means that some people who aren’t you have to read your work.

I am not at all sure that there are too many other rules that are actually universal. I can think of plenty of rules that would make you a better writer, but that is not the same thing. You’ll be a better writer if you have a feel for correct grammar, word usage, punctuation, and the rhythm of language. But we can all think of highly successful writers who don’t have all, or maybe any, of that and yet there they are, highly successful.

In the same way, you’ll be a better novelist if you have a feel for tension, pacing, character, and dialogue, but most of us can probably think of novels that are highly successful even though they are deficient in one or more of those qualities. I sure can, even some examples that I like quite a bit. There’s a series I like a lot even though I’m perfectly aware the characters are flat; there’s another I’ve read several times even though the dialogue is barely serviceable.

However, I think I may be able to list a couple more rules that are actually universal.

3. You cannot be a successful writer if all “your” work is actually plagiarized. You may be a successful scam artist, but you are not in any sense a writer if you are “creating” “new” “works” via plagiarism.

4. Related to the above, I’m not sure I would say that someone is a successful writer if all their work is ghostwritten by someone else. In fact, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t. I get that having a book ghostwritten is legal and not the same as plagiarism, but the person who puts the words in a row is the writer, and if that’s not the person whose name is on the cover, then the putative author is not the writer.

I can think of one more rule that is (pretty much, probably) universal:

5. In order to succeed as a writer, you must refrain from crazy, borderline illegal behavior like physically stalking reviewers. I imagine we have all seen the occasional cautionary tale along these lines; eg, google Kathleen Hale and there you go. An author may be able to recover from the stigma, but seriously, just don’t get involved in that kind of interaction if you want to be a successful writer.

That’s five! That’s more than I expected to come up with when I started! Can anyone think of any other rules that are actually, or nearly, universally applicable to all writers? Or even all novelists?

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2 thoughts on “10 Universal Rules for Writers: can it be done?”

  1. Universal, but probably not frequently applicable.

    Corollary to the first rule: You can’t finish writing projects if you are dead or trapped on a desert island. Avoid activities likely to lead to those results.

    Corollary to the second rule: Other people aren’t going to read your stuff if you are such a social pariah that your work is effectively untouchable. Avoid activities likely to lead to that result.

  2. Both true, Allan! You could even say, “If you take up a hobby that absorbs 100% of your attention, and that hobby is climbing mountains rather than writing, you cannot succeed as a writer … until you retire and write your memoir and mountain climbing handbooks.

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