Friday, 30 January 2009

Robert A Heinlein’s Rules for Writing

When I was a teenager, I read almost nothing but science fiction (as it was then called), having been hooked first by H.G. Wells and subsequently John Wyndham. One of my favourite American SF authors at the time was Robert A. Heinlein. A few years ago, I tried rereading one of his tomes (which I remembered as being a sharp and thoughtful satire) and found it was practically unreadable. But I was nevertheless interested in his ‘five rules’ for fiction writing, which I recently discovered and which I think still hold true. I know a lot of pretty good writers who have never been published either because (a) they are afraid to send their work out into the Big Wide World, or (b) having done so once, and having received a rejection slip, are afraid of being twice bitten. This post is for them.

Although I’m not sure I agree with Rule Three, here are HEINLEIN'S FIVE RULES FOR WRITING:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.


Mary Witzl said...

Isn't rule 3 just the biggest piece of nonsense? Editorial order? It makes me wonder what his first drafts looked like. If he really managed to do this, they must have been a hell of a lot better than mine.

Right this minute I am engaged in a huge, hairy rewriting process and the last thing I want to think is that I should be holding off until an editor gives me the go-ahead...

But rule 2 is absolutely spot on and I would do well to remember it.

Paul said...

Hi Mary

I totally agree - rule 3 is ridiculous. Unfortunately, I've met more than a few budding writers who seem to follow Heinlein's third rule a little TOO closely!

Hope your rewriting is going as well as can be expected . . .


Vaughan said...

Ah, Heinlein's third rule is much misunderstood. I agree with Robert Sawyer's modern interpretation of "don't tinker with it endlessly." I will edit and get critique and edit again, but I know (mostly) when to stop. Were Heinlein alive today would he be prepared to amend it along these lines? Possibly. Kerouac supposedly was first draft every time (you don't say!), and Joyce's editor had the hardest job in the business. But times change, you wouldn't get away with that today.

Paul said...

Vaughan - he might get away with it, but I doubt he'd be published!

Many thanks for your helpful interpretation of 'Rule Three'.


James A. Ritchie said...

Rule number three is a very good rule, if taken the proper way.

Get the story the way you want it, and then leave it the heck alone until and unless an editor or agent asks for changes.

Nor should it take forever to get teh writing the way you want it. Too much rewriting is much worse than too little.

The biggest nonsense out there is allowing yourself to write crap. Hemingway started this nonsense, but he never, ever followed it. Like rule three, Hemingway meant one thing, and new writers all over the world took it another way.

A first draft should be written as well as the writer can write it. Hemingway's first drafts were not as good as his final drafts, but they were still wonderful, still publishable, as they stood.

Paul said...

Hi James

Hmm . . . I think we could debate this for some time. The problem is that most wannabe writers (a) will read Heinlein's third rule as baldly as it is written and (b) cannot claim to be anything near as good as Hemingway. In that case, (a) + (b) = crap.

The fact that Heinlein's Rule Three is open to interpretation suggests to me he should have rewritten it - then it might be more clear!

And on the subject of Hemingway, I seem to remember reading somewhere that he once told F Scott Fitzgerald that he wrote one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of crap - he just made sure the crap went into the bin, so no one ever saw it.


Having said that, I'm with you on making sure the first draft is as good as a writer can make it. And I certainly agree that too much rewriting can be as detrimental as too little. The trick is to get the balance right.


Jao Romero said...

the bad writers take Heinlein's 3rd rule to mean, never correct grammar mistakes and other writing mistakes. the good writers take it to mean as: never change your story to fit someone else's critique unless he or she is your editor or publisher.

Generalst said...

Think of rule three as being a way to keep from getting into an endless loop of rewriting. If you are constantly tweaking a so called 'finished' manuscript, you'll never get it done. (Besides, you should have done the editing and 'rewriting' in order to meet the demands of rule two.)

To phrase it another way:

Insight: An old-school engineering manager used to have a sign prominently displayed in his office that read:

"There comes a time in every program where you have to shoot the engineers and go into production."

(Heinlein worked as an aeronautical engineer of science fiction greats during World War II. I suspect that he knew of the adage.)