Heinlein’s Rules

I had an occasion a few days ago to revisit on the web Robert Heinlein’s rules of writing, and to reconsider as to how I felt about them.  For those who are not familiar with the rules, laid down by the iconic sci-fi author, here they are.

  1. You must write.  (Of course.)
  2. You must finish what you start.  (Obviously.)
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.  (What?)
  4. You must put your story on the market.  (How else will it get published?)
  5. You must keep it on the market until it has sold.  (Again . . . )

All sound worthwhile, don’t they?  Well, let’s see.

I like the rules, and don’t have any real problem with them, with the exception of Rule No. 3.  Many other writers have also commented on these rules, and I invite you to search the web with your favorite search engine (there are other search engines than Google out there; I use Ixquick a lot) to find commentaries on these rules.  Some of my comments here are reflected in these other commentaries.

Basically, the rules are common sense.  If you want to be a published author, you have to write something to begin with, finish it, and send it out.  It almost certainly will be rejected, so send it out again.  And again.  And so forth.  The real problem I have with the rules comes in the third one.

I’m not sure exactly what Heinlein meant by refraining from writing “except to editorial order,” and it seems to be open to interpretation.  Some authors, notably Dean Wesley Smith, interpret it literally.  Smith, for example, writes a particular piece straight through without any outline or other helpful device, then goes through it once to check minor things such as spelling, punctuation, and so forth.  Then he sends it out.  It works for him.  Others, such as Robert J. Sawyer, suggest Heinlein meant to not “tinker endlessly with your story,” but it is acceptable to go through it to polish and refine.  Others, such as J.W. Alden, will tell you to smash the rule “into pieces.”

I’m not so sure I feel like Mr. Alden, but it is clear to me that rule #3 is either unworkable, or at best, misleading.  Especially to a novice such as myself.  I’ve written several novels and short stories, and every one has been revised and polished many times.  Okay, perhaps that’s no good.  Perhaps I’m tinkering too much with it.  Smith would tell me so.  But for the beginning writer who comes upon those rules and attempts to follow them to the letter, I think the third rule will be their downfall.  For someone just starting out, no matter how many times they send out a piece after following Rule No. 3, it’s likely to never get published.  Rules four and five, then, will be useless.  Writing is revising, and a piece has to be well done in order to get published.

Rule No. 3 is especially true after NaNoWriMo.  If you’re coming off an intense November with a “finished” novel, expecting to send it out and get it published just because you read through it once, you’re very likely way off the mark.  Unless you are Dean Wesley Smith or someone else experienced enough to actually pull it off.  I’m sure as hell not.

Even these blog posts are not just typed and posted.  After I finish each one I read through them four or five times or more (yes, Mr. Smith, 4 or 5 times) before I hit the “Publish” button in the upper right hand corner of the screen.  I look at spelling, punctuation, sentence order and structure, phrasing, paragraph order, references, imagery, concept generation, total word count, and anything else I can spot.  I don’t just pop it up there.  I want it to make sure it says what I want it to say, and says it well.  Even then, when I look at some of the older posts I’ve made, I still find things I could change.

All of my works have been similarly evaluated.  They’ve got to be absolutely perfect before I send them out.  Perhaps that’ll be my downfall, but I don’t think so.  Everyone who has read anything I’ve written has commented on how “clean” the manuscript is (i.e., free of errors).  Maybe they didn’t like the work (that’s a matter of opinion) but it certainly wasn’t because of simple mistakes that can easily be corrected.  It is true that works of art, especially written works, are never finished, only abandoned.  But that doesn’t mean that you should abandon a work after a simple cursory inspection.  I think you can do better than that.  Make it good.  (See my blog on good vs. best.)

Now if you will excuse me, I have to re-read this blog post to make it better.

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