Rules for Writers

The Guardian newspaper (in the UK) ran a feature in which they asked ‘some of the most esteemed contemporary authors’  for the ten golden rules they bring to their writing practice.  Here are some of the rules with which I agree or disagree, the name of the author, and my reasons:


  • “When I’m deep inside a story, ­living it as I write, I honestly don’t know what will happen. I try not to dictate it, not to play God.”  (Michael Morpurgo).  For me this works very well, and the key is to ‘live it as I write’.  The result, I believe, is a more genuine product.
  • “The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can’t deal with this you needn’t apply.”  (Will Self)  This is self-evidently quite true.
  • “Respect the way characters may change once they’ve got 50 pages of life in them. Revisit your plan at this stage and see whether certain things have to be altered to take account of these changes.”  (Rose Tremain).  This is good advice.  A character may change for reasons that haven’t yet been made clear.  I think it’s important to recognise this, go back and add the clarifications.
  • “In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.”  (Rose Tremain)  When I have formed a vague plan as to the ending, I find that there is a far better one that arrives by evolution.
  • “Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.”  (Margaret Atwood)  This is  very important, and I agree that the best test is whether what I’ve written holds my own attention.
  • ” If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.”  (Margaret Atwood)  This may seem like a trivial point, but before I started doing this I would – for various reasons – lose several hour’s work.  Now, I religiously click on the ‘Save As’ button to send it to my memory stick, as well as my hard disc.
  • “Read like mad. But try to do it analytically – which can be hard, because the better and more compelling a novel is, the less conscious you will be of its devices. It’s worth trying to figure those devices out, however: they might come in useful in your own work. I find watching films also instructive. Nearly every modern Hollywood blockbuster is hopelessly long and baggy. Trying to visualise the much better films they would have been with a few radical cuts is a great exercise in the art of story-telling. ”  (Sarah Waters)  This makes a lot of sense to me.  I like to watch good films critically thinking, ‘how could this be  improved?’  Spotting ‘compelling devices’ and making use of them in one’s own work is also good advice.


  • “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”  (Zadie Smith)  This makes no sense to me.  Why would a writer want to deprive himself of a really useful tool?  I use the internet, for example, to find the names and locations of real places, to discover ethnic habits and customs, to find out how a character would get from place A to place B (if it’s important).  The reason I do this is to make my fiction as realistic as possible.  One has to be careful not to get distracted, but once I find the information I’m seeking, I return immediately to the writing.
  • “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.  (Elmore Leonard)  For me, the repetition of the verb ‘said’ would  be  boring.  The writer has to stick her nose in; after all, it’s her story.  Use of a different verb, other than ‘said’, can characterise the feelings of the speaker.
  • “Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.”  (Elmore Leonard)  I tend to agree that it is best not to mix ‘said’ with and adverb; it is better to select a more expressive verb.  (See the comment above.)  But I don’t agree that the use of adverbs is a mortal sin.  Adverbs are part of the English language (and every other language, as far as I know).  Sometimes – not often, but sometimes – the best available verb on its own doesn’t adequately express the situation.  Then, I’ll use an adverb.
  • “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.”  (Elmore Leonard)  I agree with the point about not bringing the flow of a story to a standstill.  But I will often begin a new scene – before any action takes place – to life with a brief, clear description.  I think it’s sometimes important to prompt the reader’s imagination. 

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