Guidelines for Writers

Cheryl Klein, an editor of children’s books at Arthur A. Levine Books, also has a fantastic blog at Brooklyn Arden.  Today, she posed an interesting question to her readers who are also writers:  what are your rules?  What are the principles that you follow as you craft a story and create a manuscript?

This is an excellent question.

It is also, as Ms. Klein points out, a somewhat useless question, because every writer’s process is as unique as that individual.

I have here on my desk — which is my kitchen counter, but bear with me — a book called “The Secret Miracle:  The Novelist’s Handbook” which is a collection of interviews with more than fifty novelists, some titans in their field.  Michael Chabon.  Stephen King.  Amy Tan.  Jennifer Egan.  International writers whose names I am ashamed to say I cannot read much less pronounce.  They were all asked the same questions, and their answers are presented so that when you read it, it is as though you are sitting in the audience of a fascinating novelists’ panel discussion at a conference. 

I am skimming through it, but in actual fact, I haven’t learned much that I can use.  When the question is, “Do you outline?” how helpful is a response like “I hold it all in a nice mush in my head”?  Another author, asked how long it takes to finish a first draft, replied, “I don’t really do drafts.”  What does that even mean?  

The question is:  “Do you write in sequence?”  First author listed:  “Of course.  Is there another way to write?”  Third author:  “No.  Absolutely not.”  Sixth author:  “Not always.”

Alrighty then.

If these are the giants, if the titans can’t give us hard and fast guidelines, if a god “holds it all in a nice mush” in his head, what are we mere mortals to do?

Therefore, as much as I would love to hand down my wisdom from Mount Sinai or Mount Olympus or Mount Doom (pick your favorite Mount; I would actually be speaking from Hlidskjalf if you’re curious), I don’t think it is possible for me to state Ten Principles of Writing that would have any personal meaning to you as a writer.  If you are having a particular issue, I am GREAT at that (see my previous post about being a writing coach), but in terms of generalities, I think we may be kidding ourselves.

The one thing I will say is that if you want to be a writer, you are going to have to write.   Write every day, write with conviction, write with a commitment to your story and your characters, and with the belief that this is the one thing that you want to do and to be for the rest of your life.  It’s not going to happen without that.

That is the first principle you need, the touchstone, the sine qua non.

And it took me a long time to figure out, believe it or not. 

What do you think?  Comment below, or head on over to Cheryl Klein’s blog and join in the discussion.

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2 Responses to Guidelines for Writers

  1. Mabel says:


    I know you are right to say “Write”! On Monday night, I went to my self-proclaimed snobby book club and listened to the discussion about terrible writers and good writing. Now I find that I have lost that conviction that you describe. Thanks for reminding me to believe in myself and my own words and ideas.

  2. Pingback: Notes from Hlidskjalf* (Guidelines for Writers II) | A Writer's Notepad

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