Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Writing Rules from the Greats

Writing "rules" aren't like the law of physics. They're not immutable, hard-and-fast absolutes that one should never vary from, especially since each writer bases his or her rules on his or her career and writing style. I wouldn't consider Hemingway's writing anything like Vonnegut's or either of theirs like Bradbury's, and their rules are written just as differently. They're all still valid (and often say the same thing in a different way). 

I do think that reading what great writers have to say about the craft can be inspirational, so here are the "rules" Bradbury, Hemingway and Vonnegut felt were the most important. 

Ray Bradbury:

1. Write with gusto.
2. In quickness is truth. (Don't think too hard, just write)
3. Write who you are. (Rather than just what you know)
4. Don't write for money or fame.
5. Feed the muse daily.
6. Don't be afraid to explore the attic. (Of the mind)
7. Surprise yourself.

Ernest Hemingway (he had only four, which is no surprise):

1. Use short sentences.
2. Use short first paragraphs.
3. Use vigorous English.
4. Be positive, not negative (it's affordable, not cheap, etc.).

Kurt Vonnegut:

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's 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 reader as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what's going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Vonnegut's are the ones I think I personally identify with the most, and are probably the most practical as far as actual characters and plot may go, thanks to 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. I think Bradbury's advice not to write for fame and money is essentially the same as Vonnegut's suggestion to write for one person and not the whole world. Bradbury's "write with gusto" and Hemingway's "use vigorous English" are pretty compatible. And I tend to take Vonnegut's last rule to mean make yourself clear and don't hide things unnecessarily from readers, rather than have no suspense at all.

One of my favorite bits of writing advice actually comes from Kurt Vonnegut, who decided to graph the shape of a story. It's a great four minutes on plot that's simple and entertaining. If you have a favorite writer's "rules" or advice to share, add them or link to them in the comments.


  1. They're great. I love Bradbury's especially. Was Vonnegut joking on No. 8?

  2. Thanks for the list, Shelley. I find other writers' rules interesting and sometimes Vonnegut's 8) for sure. Like you said, some work and some don't, just as some are true and others are not.

    I know Lisa Morton received some heat about a a questionnaire on whether you're a pro writer or not recently. You can read it here. (

    In the end, we should make our own set of rules that helps us to be better writers.

  3. Thanks, Shelley! I love having all this great advice in one place. I think we do make up our own rules as we go along, and I also think we grow into some rules the longer we write. I have writing books setting on my shelf that I read a half dozen years ago, but I truly didn't understand their advice until last year when I began writing on a schedule and finishing the stories I started. Here's a fun link to writing advice by different writers: I'm partial to Neil Gaiman's.

  4. This is my favorite and is my ending line (tagline?) on blog posts on the group blog I write for.

    “Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.”~Robert Bresson, French Film Director