New authors are always looking for tips, tricks, and rules that can give them an edge in the wild jungles of storytelling, and it’s natural that established authors are considered fonts of wisdom in this regard. They’re successful, so they must have something useful to tell us, right? Well, when I looked into Kurt Vonnegut’s eight rules of writing, I found them to be a very mixed bag. So today we’re looking at another famous author: Neil Gaiman. As luck would have it, he also has eight rules of writing, gathered in this Guardian article from the ancient year of 2010.
The First Rule
Uh-huh. I guess that’s technically accurate; you must at some point write if you want to be a writer. Of course, you also need to breathe occasionally or else you’ll stop being an alive person, and it’s pretty rare to publish a bestseller from beyond the grave. We could also add “eat” and “drink” to our list of writing rules, just to cover all the bases.
To be extremely generous, we could interpret this to mean that writers should put aside supplementary tasks like researching, outlining, drawing maps, and the like so there’s more time for adding words to the manuscript drafts. And for some writers, that’s good advice, as they can get trapped in endless worldbuilding notes or kill their creative energy with too much outlining. But it’s just as likely to go the other way – writers often need a lot of research to get the feel of their setting right, or they end up with 100,000 words of unsalvageable dreck because they didn’t outline properly.
Process advice like this is extremely subjective, depending on the individual author and their needs, so it’s not useful to give out in the form of blanket statements. Although, to be honest, it’s more likely that Gaiman is being cheeky here. “What’s the first rule of writing? To write!” That might be cute, but it’s not the advice that less-experienced writers need to hear.
Conclusion: Completely useless, even when given every benefit of the doubt.
The Second Rule
Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
Really, Neil? You’ve just repeated the first rule, but with more words and more confusion. Put one word after another? Well, I was going to fill in words at random all over the page, but now I know better. I’m also not a big fan of telling authors to “find the right word.” No one picks the wrong word on purpose; the problem is they don’t always know which word is right!
My best guess is that this is meant as encouragement. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter how hard it is – that kind of thing. It’s not very good encouragement, though. If that was the goal, it should have included something about how you’ll feel ground down and exhausted sometimes, which is when it’s most important to keep putting words down one at a time.
I’d also question how useful such encouragement would be in a list of “rules.” Writers can get encouragement from anywhere. The whole point of consulting experienced professionals is that they’re supposed to impart knowledge that can help you overcome problems. Not give you an incomplete pep talk.
Conclusion: Another useless entry, even if you can figure out what it means.
The Third Rule
Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
We’ve moved past tautologies and into actual advice for the first time and… it’s very situational. On its face, the idea that you absolutely have to finish every story is obviously wrong. Plenty of successful writers have put away half-finished stories, or even left best-selling series without an ending, and they’re still doing okay.
But there are a lot of writers, especially new writers, who struggle to finish anything. Starting a project is fun and exciting. Once you reach the middle, it’s often just work, and by then you have a bevy of shiny new ideas to distract you. Following this advice could be useful for writers in that situation, since buckling down and finishing a story is something they’ll have to do eventually, even if it’s exceptionally difficult.
At the same time, many other writers don’t have difficulty with finishing stories as a whole, but do run into trouble with individual works. In that case, an obsession with reaching the end can be detrimental. Some stories are never going to work out, and pushing through will only leave you with a lot of wasted time and energy. It’s better to shift focus and work on something that actually has a chance of functioning. How do you know when it’s time to abandon a story? The answer is extremely context sensitive and changes based on the person, which is why a blanket statement like this is often completely inapplicable to an individual’s situation.
Conclusion: Possibly useful for the right person, but actively detrimental for others.
The Fourth Rule
Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
This rule is actually three separate rules wearing a trench coat and hoping no one notices. Each sentence is largely unrelated to the other two. The first sentence is, like so much of Gaiman’s advice, dependent entirely on what your writing process looks like. Personally, I always put my stories aside for a while before doing any kind of revision, as it helps me establish some distance. But I’ve worked with authors who turn right around and start revising before the digital ink has even dried. Starting so soon allows them to fix problems before those problems become part of the story’s baseline. They wouldn’t gain anything from waiting.
The second sentence is a weird exercise in pointless make-believe. You can pretend you’ve never read a story all you want; that doesn’t actually suppress your memories.* It’s still a good idea to read through the draft a few times so you can catch obvious errors, and you should always try to imagine the reader’s experience, but that won’t actually undo what you know about the story. That’s what editors and beta readers are for!
The third sentence is actually pretty good advice, assuming the friends are serving as beta readers. You need multiple people’s reactions to accurately gauge what’s working and what’s not working, as a single person could always be a weird outlier. Likewise, you should pick beta readers who typically enjoy the kind of story you’re writing, as that’ll be the core of your target audience. There’s no point in giving a story about dueling starpilots to someone who hates spaceships.
Conclusion: One-third situational, one-third pointless, and one-third useful. I guess that makes it 33.3% good advice.
The Fifth Rule
Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
Hot damn, now we’re talking. This is basically Mythcreants’ philosophy on beta reading and on getting feedback in general. People can tell you their experience with a story and, short of malicious intent, they’re rarely wrong. This is a major reason you don’t argue with your beta readers. If a reader is confused by your plot twist, explaining why it happened doesn’t fix their confusion in the moment. If a reader is bored at a battle scene, telling them the battle is actually very exciting doesn’t help.
By the same token, the vast majority of people are not qualified to tell you how to fix your story, whether they’ve read the story or not. They probably don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish, so their advice often goes in the wrong direction entirely. If they do know what your goals are, they probably still lack the expertise to make useful recommendations. Storytelling is both very complicated and poorly understood, meaning that most people’s revision ideas won’t be any better than yours, and probably worse.
Ideally, editors are the exception, since they should actually possess the expertise to make useful recommendations on a story. But there are a lot of editors out there, and some are better than others. In particular, a lot of content editors don’t take the time to figure out what the author is trying to accomplish. Without knowing the author’s goals, an editor’s advice can be technically accurate while also being completely unhelpful. That’s why it’s a good idea to research an editor before hiring them, and why we make our editing philosophy as transparent as possible.
Conclusion: Very useful, and something I hope authors keep in mind regardless of whatever else is on this list.
The Sixth Rule
Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
This rule is more than a little confusing. It starts with “Fix it,” which is indeed something writers have to do. Maybe there’s an author out there who doesn’t have to revise, but I’ve never met them, and the rest of us mere mortals will have a lot of fixing to do before even our best work is ready for publication. So far, so good.
Then, with no transition, the rest of the rule is a caution against perfectionism. Without more context, this sounds like contradictory advice. Are we supposed to fix the story, or are we supposed to accept its flaws and move on? Maybe you should fix the story a little, but then stop at some indeterminate point. No one knows!
Contradictions aside, perfectionism is certainly a problem for some authors, but in my experience, the reverse is much more common. Revising a manuscript is hard, even when you have an editor to point out the problems and offer recommendations. The process is so difficult that authors will often reach for any excuse to avoid it, as I’ve done myself on several occasions. It’s easy to convince yourself that all you’re doing is fiddling with minor issues, so you might as well stop when there are still story-breaking problems to address.
Conclusion: Contradictions aside, this rule could be useful to perfectionist writers out there, but it’s useless to the rest of us.
The Seventh Rule
Laugh at your own jokes.
I don’t get this one, possibly because I’m not very funny.* While it’s possible to laugh at your own jokes, it’s an uphill battle because you already know the punchline. This rule seems like an unnecessarily high standard to set for your writing, assuming you write humor in the first place.
Maybe it means you should write the jokes for yourself first? That’s a risky strategy if ever I heard one. I love obscure Star Trek jokes, but unless my target audience is people who also love obscure Star Trek jokes, I probably shouldn’t fill the manuscript with references to that time Wesley got drunk and took over the ship. Of course, sometimes a story does want that audience specifically, as is the case for Redshirts and Lower Decks. But in most cases, you’ll want jokes that appeal to a wider group of people.
The most generous interpretation I can think of is that you shouldn’t put a joke in your story if you don’t think it’s funny. Which is correct, but also, was anyone doing that? Maybe someone writing a wedding scene who thinks they have to put in sexist humor about the groom’s life being over? Seems like an edge case at best. Heck, this might not even be writing advice. Maybe Gaiman is offering tips on how to enjoy social gatherings – it’s impossible to tell!
Conclusion: A rule can’t be useful if you don’t know what it means.
The Eighth Rule
The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
Nope nope nope. Do not approach. Attempt no landing here.
Neil, I have to ask, have you ever met a brand-new writer? I promise that confidence is not what they’re typically lacking. Half a content editor’s job is explaining that no, it won’t work for the story to be about every single thing the writer cares about, all in one manuscript. Beginner’s hubris is a problem in most fields, but it’s especially common in writing because the craft is so poorly understood. New authors often emerge from a four-year English program still thinking that they can revolutionize the concept of a novel on their first try.
Even if overconfidence weren’t rampant among beginners, this rule has an incredibly privileged bent. It’s no secret that only a certain group of people is likely to have their bluster mistaken for competence. Although, to be honest, the writing market is so competitive that even the most privileged authors still need a baseline of skill to be popular. That, or a huge marketing budget.
Weirdly, Gaiman seems to be selling himself short here. Does he think that Good Omens is popular because he was confident while writing it with Terry Pratchett, rather than because it’s very good? Granted, Gaiman’s career benefited from having the right friends, and confidence probably helped there, but I doubt it would have come to much if he hadn’t also been a skilled writer. Most writers need to put in a lot of hard work to achieve that level of skill – a fact no amount of confidence will change.
Conclusion: Some of the worst advice a new writer can get.
Out of eight, we have exactly one useful rule, while the rest range from overly ambiguous to possibly career sinking. That’s significantly worse than Vonnegut’s eight rules, of which 50% are at least somewhat useful. Why the difference? Because most of Vonnegut’s advice is craft focused, while these are all process tips. The writing process differs greatly from author to author, so giving advice on it is extremely difficult. What helps one author might be detrimental to another. The craft of storytelling, on the other hand, is the same for everyone. That doesn’t mean all craft advice is good, but at least we all start from a common point of reference. On the bright side, that Guardian article has rules from several other famous authors, so perhaps we’ll return to it in the future and see what they have to say.
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