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We don’t need no stinking rules

February 28, 2010

Last week the Guardian newspaper ran a feature called Ten rules for writing fiction in which they invited a number of published authors including Will Self, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle and Hilary Mantel to suggest their ten dos and don’ts for writing.

Image courtesy of Dan Brady, and
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The first thing you can take from this article is that writers are rubbish at following directions. Many fail to come up with ten rules. Some even submit only one, although when Philip Pullman does this, it is by brilliantly stating that his only rule is to not participate in “this sort of thing” as it distracts from the task of writing.

Many of the rules however are more to do with the ins and outs of living as a writer, rather than the nuts and bolts of actually writing fiction like they were asked.

Perhaps the most useful advice comes from Neil Gaiman, whose first three rules can be boiled down to “write until you’ve finished”.

The most acerbically incisive advice comes from British author Will Self. His fifth bit of advice should be hewn in stone above every writer’s desk for those moments when the doubts start to creep in:

You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.

Of course, there really is only one rule to writing, and mercifully many of the writers cover it. That rule is this:


The article well worth reading for inspiration and advice. There are two parts, the first part is linked above, and the second part is found here.

Do you have any rules you follow that haven’t been suggested by these luminaries of the literary world? Leave your comment below…

Paul is an unemployed writer living in West London with his wife, two leopard geckos, and no heating or water. Not because he’s trying to cultivate the image of the poverty-stricken writer, but because his landlord is a rapaciously greedy ne’er-do-well who values saving a few pounds in repair costs more than the health of his tenants. Or next month’s rent for that matter…
  1. February 28, 2010 1:46 am

    As part of the Short Story Challenge thrown down gauntlet style on Jodi’s blog, I am reading A. C. Tilyer’s short fiction collection, An A to Z of Possible Worlds. The stories so far break many of the rules of short fiction. No identifiable main character, no dialogue, action described in the style of historical overview. The stories, if you believe the rules like those in these lists, shouldn’t work maybe, but they do.

    The best rule on those lists is, as you say, to write. I liked Will Self’s list too.

  2. February 28, 2010 1:58 am

    I was both delighted and infuriated by the Guardian’s feature, so I responded with a detailed analysis on my blog, below.

    Generally, I found that the more technical the rule, the more useless. Some of the authors tried to make sweeping declarations about style (No character description! No adverbs! etc.) that just come off sounding pompous and silly.

    On the contrary, writers who talked about the psychological aspects of writing, like Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood, were the most insightful and edifying–and humble, too. It’s no surprise that I also prefer their work over that of the more didactic authors.

  3. February 28, 2010 5:36 am

    *applaude* I agree with your sentiments Paul – these writers have taken themselves far too seriously. I was amused to see one rule as don’t write in public places….. are you kidding? the BEST characters are wandering around begging to be picked up on.

    I have sinned dreadfully on my journey – but we all do… I do agree with the “said” rule and the “suddenly” warning.

    A rule I am still coming to terms with is to read.. everything…. I’d been fearful of unconsciously copying other peoples work if I read anything so avoided books all together. It was like cutting my heart out with a spoon.. a blunt one.

    yes there aught to be rules – but rules are meant to be broken….he he….

    *we don’t need no stinking badgers” neither… ( prize for any geek who knows where that quote comes from)

    sending warm thoughts to you and your cute geckos.

  4. February 28, 2010 4:32 pm

    I read that feature a few days back. It was both inspiring and disheartening, not entirely sure why. Some of them did give good advice but my favourite was Esher Freud’s last one:
    “7 Never forget, even your own rules are there to be broken.”

    Because there are rules too all writing, both academic and fictional. In the end, as you said Paul, there’s only one rule. The only unbreakable one.

  5. adampb permalink
    February 28, 2010 5:58 pm

    Annie, if my pop culture serves me, the reference comes from The Three Amigos (Chevy Chase, Steve Martin and Martin Short), but I’m sure it was used a whole lot earlier.

    Those rules must have been written by a bunch of editors masquerading as authors.

  6. February 28, 2010 6:28 pm

    I have to say that I was never one for rules – yet somehow managed to make it through high school.

    Stephen Kind’s rules set out in “On Writing” changed the way I wrote – and for the better. They are technical rules referring to the overuse of adverbs and dialogue attribution.

    But the best ‘rules’ I’ve ever heard:

    To gives oneself the permission to write badly! (from the divine Ms Emma Newman – and the rule)

    Make writing a priority (from moi)

    Second draft = First draft – 10% (Stephen King)

    Now to go off and read this these articles!

    (PS: At least The Guardian are interested in writing – I can’t see any Australian newspaper commissioning such a series!)

  7. March 1, 2010 2:45 am

    Jodi, this was in the dedicated “Review” section that comes out on a Saturday, that focuses mainly on writing, but also looks a little at theatre and the visual arts.

    The letters page had som interesting responses to the article, including one which chimed with me. After reading so many novellists saying “only use ‘said’ when a character speaks”, “don’t waste time with detailed descriptions”, “avoid adverbs” etc, one reader commented:

    I no know who to blame for my abject failure to publish fiction: assorted English teachers who cajoled us into thining of as many alternatives for “said” as we could, encouraged the liberal use of adverbs and insisted on the importance of physical description, whether of people or places.”

    In my primary school, the word “said” was banned by one of the teachers, who declared it to be “boring”.

  8. March 1, 2010 4:04 am

    Adam.. I’m so sorry, you need to be a much bigger geek than that to recognise the parody line from The 1948 Humphrey Bogart movie, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” and to be fair a number of films have included “badges? Badges? we don’t need no stinking badges.” line since ; including the one you note.
    Note the word “Badgers” rather than “badges”…… Its from Weird Als “Vidiot”

    the original is seen here….

    Weird Als ( an all time classic in my geeky world) is here ( I think you need to see the whole film to appreciate this snippet though…)

  9. hedgemonkey permalink
    March 1, 2010 10:04 pm

    Hmmm, for months now I’ve had Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules for writing a short story pinned over my desk. After wading through this article I tore it down realising what an appalling affectation it was. I am not KV and the title of this Post says it all.

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