Friday Morning Pages:Practice and Heinlein’s Rules

I’m going to wrap up this mini-series on practice with something few of you expect. Some of you might even be angry at me for bringing this up, if you weren’t already about angry about practice in general. If so, check in with yourself and try to figure out why this stuff makes you ticked. You’re only short-changing yourself by letting negative emotions dictate your writing.


Heinlein’s rules for the business of writing. Yes, I decided to go there. More qualified writers than me have discussed this topic—Robert J. Sawyer, Dean Wesley Smith, Douglas Smith, to name a few. But Heinlein’s rules hammer home a point I’ve been trying to make about practice.

For those who don’t know, Robert Heinlein put forth these rules in an essay published in 1947. You can memorize the five rules, they are so simple:

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you write.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial demand. (Harlan Ellison later added: “And only if you agree.”)
  4. You must put your work on the market.
  5. You must keep your work on the market.

If you’ve followed me thus far, we can safely agree that to be a writer, you must write. It’s pretty logical that if you want your book read by other people, you need to finish it.

But what about this “refrain from rewriting” business? This is where most aspiring writers get mad, right here. All of us, at least in the United States and probably throughout the Western world, are taught in school that rewriting makes writing stronger. The second and third drafts are where mistakes are fixed and prose can be fortified.

The problem is, school teachers taught us how to write term papers, and they do a remarkable job. Professional writing isn’t the same thing. Now, a distinction—in non-fiction writing, you probably do need several drafts to make sure you’re being objective, clear, and concise.

In fiction writing, more than two drafts is a waste of time.

Nobody pays you by the draft. In the indie world, you get paid when a reader hits the “Buy Now” button. In corporate publishing, they pay you when you turn in the novel (theoretically anyway, the Big 5 world is more complicated in reality).

The key word here is “refrain,” not “never.” I’m not bashing rewriting on my blog. But understand that rewriting is a skill in itself, distinct from writing. It’s also a tool, and should be used sparingly. Too much rewriting, you’ll edit out your own voice. Spell check, fix typos, and edit the story parts that your first reader doesn’t like. Beyond that, you’re probably doing too much editing.

Learn and practice the skills like depth, pacing, voice, plot twists, etc. And then trust that all training is in the back of your brain. It will all come out into your stories when you get out of your way.

Rewriting aside, what about rules four and five? Again, it’s safe to say that if we all want to be professionals, there’s a point where finished stories have to sent out to market. Either mailed to a publisher, or indie published. So easy to say, scary as hell in reality. I know. I never think any of my stories are truly ready for market when I publish them.

Do the best you can at the time you write the story. And then let an editor decide if the story is publishable. Or, if indie, let readers decide if they want to spend hard earned money on your book.

As for rule five: If the story gets rejected, and early on a lot of stories do, put it back in the queue for another publisher to look at. The indie equivalent—don’t unpublish your story, no matter what.

What does this all have to do with practice?

Heinlein’s rules is a structure for the practicing professional. Write, finish your stories, stop obsessing over getting your stories perfect, and let readers enjoy your work. Wash, rinse, repeat on yet more stories. Call every novel a practice session, and then send it to market.

I have a hunch I could do an entire blog series on Heinlein’s rules. Just barely scratched the surface here. I will say this—compared to when I first attempted writing fiction, in 2005 or so, I am now lightyears ahead in terms of skill level and productivity.

All because I follow Heinlein’s rules. I’ve practiced this storytelling thing a lot.

Heinlein’s rules aren’t sexy or glamorous. You don’t invited to parties because of them, nor will they win you many friends. You can’t talk about the rules with your NaNoWriMo buddies, because they’ll disown you. The rules are utterly useless at picking up girls, especially when the girl is a novice writer.

But the rules help with productivity. They’re a framework and an excuse to practice writing. Use them accordingly, even if you interpret “refrain from rewriting” to mean “only three drafts.” Whatever. As long as you return to the writing chair and produce stories, that’s what matters.

Have fun with practicing. Practice every day if you can. Never be afraid of learning new skills and adding to your repertoire.

Now comes the hard and fun part—go practice!

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By David Anthony Brown

Indie writer and publisher. Among other jack-of-all-trade skills...

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