7 Rules for Writing
To my amazement (and delight), Malcolm Gladwell has selected Drive as the March pick for the New Yorker Online Book Club. And as a way to gear up readers for the discussion, the magazine asked me a few questions — including whether I had any “rules” for writing.
I’d actually never thought about that. But it turned out that I did — in a kinda, sorta way — have some rules for hacking out sentences in the hopes that they grow into paragraphs and eventually coalesce into pages and books.
I’m listing them below. But my real purpose is to hear what rules you follow to help get work done — and done well. If you’d like to share your own rule(s) in the comments section, I’ll repost a selection next week.
1. Show up. Get to work even when you don’t feel like writing—especially when you don’t feel like writing.
2. Write every day. Regaining momentum takes three times as much energy as sustaining momentum. (Look it up: It’s a law of literary physics.)
3. Don’t do anything else until you’ve written five hundred words. I mean it.
4. Move. Some of my best ideas come when I’m climbing the stairs of my house or running in my neighborhood.
5. Once you’ve produced a semi-credible draft of a section or chapter, have someone read it to you aloud. Hearing your words will make you rethink—and sometimes regret—them.
6. Remember that writing, though solitary, is also social. You’re making a promise to readers. Honor that promise.
7. These rules work for me. Your mileage may vary.
Never (or rarely) write a sentence containing more than 23 words.
Great simple tips.
As you know I need them right now as I begin the journey 🙂
My rules for writing:
1) Never compromise – never, ever look at a sentence that is giving you fits and say, “Well, that’s good enough.”
2) Treat the words like precious jewels – use them sparingly and with great care. You only get so many to use before your time is up.
3) Be different – if your article, book, poem, white paper, blog, tweet or facebook post doesn’t take the reader to a place they haven’t been – you’ve wasted their time and more tragically, you’ve wasted the words. (See #2)
4) When you write, let the process consume you – don’t force the words out AND don’t make them wait. If it’s time to write, it’s time to write – no matter what the clock or the culture are telling you.
5) Go analog now and then – writing with a pencil on a piece of paper forces you to slow down. It’s also easier to scratch out, draw arrows and rework a passage on paper than it is on a keyboard.
Love the “500 words” rule. I’m in the midst of writing my first book and that’s about the same standard I’ve been using. No moving, re-filling coffee, hitting the restroom, etc., until I hit the word mark. It really works well in helping push through walls.
My rules for finishing a dissertation were #1 and #2 plus #3, “Set a timer.” I didn’t allow myself to stop writing until the timer went off. Toward the end when I wasn’t enjoying any of it very much, that was the only way to put enough discipline into the process to actually finish.
I think I started following Dan Pink’s blog because I read a mention on another blog… maybe Brogan’s.
I saw your mention of Gladwell, who loves your book. I love Gladwell. So I just ordered your book. The web we weave!
These are great rules! Will work up the courage to try #5.
My corollary to #2 is: Inertia is a wall, not a mountain (i.e. don’t procrastinate thinking the whole process will be painful; breaking through the initial resistance is the hardest part).
When I get stuck or start rambling, I ask myself: “What am I trying to say?” And then I write it like I would say it (and refine from there).
My rule is to get the idea down as fast as I can. The better I become at this letting go, the more freely the words come that best articulate what I’m trying to say. Which, by the way, I find I rarely know until I have said it.
1. Start with s favorite pen or pencil
2. Use a large sketch book
3. Write, scribble, scratch out, rewrite
4. If I’m stuck, I’ll leave space, jot down a few ideas and move on. Often when working on another area of the writing, I’ll comeuppance with the words I need for the part I was stuck on.
5. After a few handwritten drafts, then I transfer it to the computer.
6. Repeat the process until the piece has found itself.
Love yours, here’s mine: I carry index cards with me everywhere (plus, a stack in nightstand) and jot down any idea or moment that inspires me. Then when I go to write, I already have some some fresh inspiration I can expand on. I’ve also found this helpful to sort out nuggets of info during research.
Thanks, Daniel. Inspiring and to the point, as always. And oh: You reminded me to order “Drive”!!
Great rules all around. I keep a notebook and pencil with me at all times. Ideas always hit me when I am not in front of the keyboard. I even call my phone to leave myself voice mails when I don’t have my notebook.
Speaking comes more naturally to me than writing, so I first write how I might verbalize an idea, passage, rant, lesson to a group. This helps me stay out of my own way, and avoid getting bound up in perfectionism. Then, realizing that how we effectively express ideas verbally and in writing are different, I review and reshape. This builds momentum, and honors the foundational value of a bad first draft which now exists and can be cultivated into something wonderful to read.
Getting excellent mileage already with these. Clearly you’re a hybrid.
Addendum to #4: A change of scenery can be invigorating. I often find it incredibly helpful to actually pick up my laptop and write in a new physical space, be it on a park bench, a library couch, or the obligatory coffee shop.
Addendum to #7: Always play to your strengths. I am a maximizer, so it’s always easier for me to take a good concept and make it great than to generate the initial sentence. This means I work best by collecting a lot of free-flow ideas and then grouping and cleaning them up later. Find what works for you!
I love rule #4: Move. Some of my best idea’s have come minutes after having what feels like the hardest workout of my life.
My biggest rule is to turn off the computer. For me, idea’s flow better on paper compared to a computer. Plus I can’t google search or check my email on a pad of paper… which brings me to the “Stop Procrastinating” rule!
Two corollaries to #6 Writing is social.
1. Write about something you care about.
2. Write with your readers in mind. It’s not about the content; it’s not about you. It’s about how they feel when they get to the end of one of your sentences, paragraphs, blogs, chapters, books.
I am not a professional writer. But I get lot of good ideas when I am out of town. Switching work area once in a while also helps!
I would add this: In deciding to write everyday you don’t have to write well everyday; you just have to write. Many people, myself included, get so hung up on being “profound” that we simply freeze and don’t get anything accomplished. One can always go back and turn bad writing into good writing with no one, save you, ever being the wiser. This process will begin to get ideas out of your head and into reality where it then becomes possible to look at them more objectively and creatively. Writing every day, even badly, will keep your tools sharp for those moments when inspiration actually hits. I learned this from an interview I heard with Paul Simon many years ago.
After I get my initial words on paper, it’s edit, edit, edit, and then edit some more.
Oh, and my father taught me that writing is a public and permanent demonstration of your thoughts. Make sure that what’s put to paper (or screen) is an accurate reflection of yourself.
I usually walk away or read a book when I can’t write a thing, I’m going to give the first tip a try.
These all make perfect sense, Dan. Love #7.
This is what I needed to read today.
Congrats on the New Yorker pick! Good rules. I need to try the 500 word thing more often. And by “more often,” I mean right now on this story I’m writing…
My number one rule is: Honor the way the work wants to be written.
Most of the time, I write, at my desk, from 9 to noon (or longer, if it’s going well), but there are times when the work pushes me out the door – I get the urge to write at the zoo or go to a museum or coffeeshop. These urges are different from the procrastination urges, the little voice telling me that I can take off today because I’ve been so good for the past week. They come when I am in the thick of it, and I have learned that I ignore them at my peril. Ignoring them means the work stagnates. 9 times out of 10, following the urge leads to something wonderful. This is why I keep this reminder taped above my desk. Honor the way the story tells you it wants to be written.
While not specifically for writing I would add todo lists and checklists. I just finished Switch and picked up the checklist idea from that book. I’m getting great mileage from that idea.
I like your list for writing. ‘Incubate’ is significant for me. Incubate those ideas in the warm environment of your subconscious for a while. And sometimes that happens when I’m climbing stairs too.
haha. was just at your dc event earlier this evening: center for creative emergence. made a comment about you being akin to malcolm gladwell in terms of the currency and relevance of your thinking. nice to see you are on his radar in a big way.
born in the early ’60s, you are. there’s a vibe in the thinking. 🙂 i could FEEL and knew instantly when i read M. Gladwell’s work that he was born in 1963. first-wave genxers ascending into mid-life. you’re one of them. look out, world. things are gonna start sounding real different … and practical.
Great tips, Dan! I’ve been following Julia Cameron’s advice for writing “morning pages” (3 pages minimum each morning) for a loooooong time and it helps me clear my creative palate and start my day. Now if I could just write and brush my teeth at the same time…
P.S. Congratulations on Drive, btw… another great read. Keep em coming :o)
Here are the seven rules I try to get myself to follow:
7. Read! Taking in other author’s tones, words, and approaches to communicating ideas. Analyze what you like about what they wrote and what didn’t work.
6. Carry a notebook and pen. A lot of us have little computer/phone/devices now and some people feel comfortable taking notes on them. I prefer a small paper pad that fits in my back pocket and a space pen (also fits in my pocket, doesn’t ever come open by accident and the ink lasts a long time). As you point out above, many of our best ideas come when we’re on the move, but if we can’t jot ’em down, they are too easily lost.
5. Keep it short. People might actually read the whole thing! Could that book be an article? Could that article be a short blog post? Could that blog post be a killer sentence? Could that sentence be a 140 character Twitter update?
4. Edit hard. Finish a draft, do a word count and then cut a third of the words. One of my favorite writing teachers, Jack Kruse once gave an assignment where we had to cut the word count of an essay in half. Our pieces were so much better once we were done! Beyond cutting, there’s moving, combining, rewording and so many other things you can do to improve the initial blast of ideas.
3. Write as if you are writing a letter to a friend. Think of a specific friend of yours. If it helps, even write “Dear So-and-so” at the top and reference things that only they would understand. You can go back and fix it later, but in the moment of writing it creates a comfortable and consistent tone between you and your readers. (Got this one years ago from Billy Upski Wimsatt.)
2. Be original! It sounds obvious, but sometimes we feel pressure to fit a mold. Everyone’s got their own flavor. Go for yours.
1. Only write about things you care about deeply.
For me there’s only one cardinal writing rule to follow: Stop, drop & write!
My best writing, the kind that jumps off the page and grabs a reader by the collar, comes from inspiration. It’s unplanned, often inconvenient, the result of stewing and percolating on some idea or event until feelings and opinions are banging on my insides demanding to spew forth.
I used to use my will to make the inspiration wait, until I finished the call or the project or the dinner. Afterward, the resulting prose was less palpable, less compelling than what I’d get when following through instantly. I could not recapture the urgency. The opportunity was gone.
Now, when an inspiration firestorm strikes, it takes priority over everything and everybody. Wherever I am, quick as I can, I stop, drop what I’m doing, and get myself in front of a keyboard, pronto. For me, following all commonly held good writing habits combined does not net the value of respecting this one rule.
1. Carry a pad and pen with you at all times.
2.Remember, often the story launches in the middle of your work.
3.Look back at old work – rethink and rework it.
4.Read writers you love who inspire you.
5.Find your‘rhythm’ or ‘voice’ and use it. Be true to it.
6.I always read my work aloud to see how it ‘sounds’ to my ear and the readers. Then I edit a lot.
7.The ‘topic’ doesn’t matters that much. I write best when I pick a topic that moves me, that I’m passionate about.
8.I write best when I start writing ‘in my head’ – then put it on paper.
9.You don’t have to be Melville – just love doing it!
Your #4: move, is one of my favorites too. I used to wonder why I’d sit stumped at a cafe, only to have everything magically clarify on my drive home. Now I know to take advantage of getting out of my chair and moving. You might say it shifts me from left-brained to right-brained thinking. Instead of dwelling on lines and paragraphs I’m suddenly able to hover over the entire piece and make new connections–especially when, like you, I’m running.
Another rule for me is to churn out a first draft without stopping, or editing, or censoring, or worrying what my reader will think. I love tinkering with lines, but it’s dangerous to do it too soon. I get my best, most innovative ideas with initial, uninhibited freewriting. Some of the best writing advice ever: Anne Lamott’s endorsement of “shitty first drafts”.
I gotta tip for ya.
Set up a word doc or similar on your computer and when you are ready to write just switch the screen off and off you go.
No editing no stopping just write what ever comes out of you fingers for about 15 to 20 minutes.
This gets you head in the right place to keep on writing.
Oh by the way you can then turn the screen back on once the momentum has kicked in.
Great tips, I also follow these rules:
Read my work out loud to myself, obvious mistakes pop up.
Carry a pad to right down ideas when they pop in my head.
Research before I write when needed.
Just write an sort it out later during first edit.
A major rule that I had to to learn was write first, edit later. It gets things done so much faster in the long run.
Rule No1 is one that I still need to learn. I started to believe that with practice, it gets easier. It does, but good (or great) doesn’t come from easy.
reminds me of vonnegut:
In his book Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, Vonnegut listed eight rules for writing a short story:
1.Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2.Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3.Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4.Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5.Start as close to the end as possible.
6.Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7.Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8.Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Hi Dan. Great blog and great tips. Check this out! Here are mines: http://www.slideshare.net/IPSP/red02-3118965
Congratulations. I just happened to listen to Outliers and Drive, in that order, over the last two weeks. Strange coincidence? Maybe. Brain overload? Definitely. Worth the effort? Absolutely. Keep up the excellent work Mr. Pink.
Loved these writing tips! A rule of thumb for myself is to just write without critiquing at first, even if it doesnt seem to make any sense. It is amazing how thoughts can take shape and create a path for both the reader and writer to experience when some of the elements of “planning” while writing are removed. Nothing cooler then watching art take shape in front of you.
I mostly follow your rules but also I never start on a blank sheet. Always know how you are starting or at least have a feeling that you want to follow…