Frederik Pohl's Answers to the Two Questions
People Always Ask Writers

Robert Heinlein's Five Rules for Successful Writing

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

My Personal Theory on How Writers Learn to Write

  1. They write a lot.
  2. They read a lot.
  3. They write for audiences.
  4. They rewrite.
  5. They study writing.

Frederik Pohl's answers are still probably the best-- even if they don't offer much comfort to people who are looking for a magic formula. I should note, however, that he and I started writing when science fiction writers wrote for magazine markets. The book situation is more complicated. But the basic principle is still valid. You have to write and you have to put the stuff on the market and collect rejections.

Heinlein's rules are famous. Every writer should memorize them. The only rule anybody argues about is number three.

Some writers are first draft writers. Many others (including me) have to get something on the screen so they can tinker with it. First draft writers rewrite in their head. Multi-draft writers rewrite on the screen. (Which is one reason I love my word processor. Rewriting on the screen is easier than rewriting on paper with a typewriter.)

My own rules are based on reading, listening to writers talk, and my view of the process I went through. I used my rules as the basis for my teaching techniques when I taught nuts and bolts writing to engineers and pre-med students.

The important phrase is "a lot". I think writing is like playing chess. Every game is different, but you will note certain patterns and develop strategies for dealing with them if you play enough games. A Go manual I read many years ago recommended that you play a couple of hundred games very rapidly when you first started. Ray Bradbury says he wrote a million words before he sold his first stories. Other writers may mention writing fifty or a hundred short stories or several novels.

Some writers start selling right away. But in those cases they usually write a lot of material for low-level markets before they write the stuff that makes their names. In effect, they're being paid while they're learning.

As for reading-- it's especially important that you read for pleasure. You're trying to write stuff people will want to read. You have to learn what that kind of writing feels like.

There is no substitute for writing for audiences. From the very beginning, you should always write with an audience in mind. It must be a real audience, not a teacher or the imaginary audience you visualize when you write in a journal. It must possess the fundamental attribute of a real audience-- the ability to completely ignore you if you don't hold its interest.

Rewriting: Alfred Bester argued that dull writers use the first idea that comes into their head. Interesting writers use the fifth or sixth idea.

Studying writing: Mostly you do that by reading. Most writers usually encounter someone who gives them some coaching or advice, in addition. Sometimes it's an editor. Sometimes it's an agent or an older writer.

The important point is that writers go through a training process. When I was teaching writing to engineers, many of them assumed you either had a talent for writing or you didn't. Artists and musicians usually receive formal, visible training. Writers usually pick up their training on their own, in private. But the process is just as real-- and just as demanding.


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