Writing Rules by Mary Deal
Writing rules are part of our free lesson plans to help you build an ever-growing repertoire of prose that has been published. You can make money writing. You’ll need published prose and much more being readied for submission in order to call yourself a writer.
Here are some DOs and DON’Ts to help aspirants over some stumbling blocks all writers face, whether you write short stories or novels, even nonfiction.
Do – write regardless what people may think. Write for yourself first. Set your muse free. Be driven. Write like your life depends on it.
Don’t – worry what other people may think about your personal writing rules and habits. Avoid hearing negative comments—unless it’s a critique you have sought out. You write because something inside prompts you to do so.
Do – let your friends know that you are writing and it’s the reason you’re not around much.
Don’t – share the details of your stories with even your best friends because one negative remark, or a suggestion to do this or that a different way, can send your muse fleeing, causing self-doubt. Stick to your writing rules.
Do – carry your laptop or pen and notepad everywhere you go. Write down new material as soon as you think of it. Catch it when it’s fresh and you will also catch the emotion behind it.
Don’t – fool yourself into believing that you’ll remember all those great ideas that come to mind in a rush. If not noted when your muse presents them, the memory of the information may not carry the emotion and excitement you first felt.
Do – learn your peak creative times; maybe mornings, maybe evenings, or late at night.
Don’t – write when you feel sluggish. Do something to change your mood and how you feel. Go outdoors, listen to music, read. Take a nap if that refreshes you. Give your mind a chance to work out the scenes while you rest or get temporarily pre-occupied.
Do – set aside as much writing time as you need. Set a schedule and stick to it – unless your muse wants to write at all hours. Time set aside is, perhaps, when the young ones are down for their naps, or maybe after the rest of the family is in bed for the night.
Don’t – try to write when you have to rush around and your mind is full of to-dos that must be done immediately.
Do – turn off the TV and, maybe, even music if the latter distracts. If background music helps, fine.
Don’t – fool yourself into believing you must watch a certain show on TV in order to feel creative, or hear certain music. Oftentimes creativity is fleeting when learning of others’ successes. It brings us back to the knowledge that we’re not there yet when all we should think about is our own success.
Do – read books and other materials relative to the subject about which you write. A good example is how writers get ideas simply by reading the headlines. Also, reading writing rules in general can spark creativity.
Don’t – copy what you’ve read. Allow it to inspire you instead. What we writers produce is a product of all that our minds have absorbed. When we create, we are producing something that is unique to ourselves once our minds break down and reassemble knowledge into our understanding.
Do – allow yourself limited time socializing on the Internet. It’s important to keep yourself in public.
Don’t – allow any distraction that prevents you from your writing schedule. It’s one thing to market and promote your writing, another to fool yourself into believing you’re helping your professional career by chit-chatting about everything from the size of peas to shoestrings.
Do – have a clear mind when you write. During your chosen private time, think only of your stories and not about unfinished chores.
Don’t – try to write when you are angry or negatively emotional. That, of course, depends on what you’re writing. If a negative experience produces a heartfelt poem about your feelings, write it.
Do – set a goal to write X number of words or pages per day, if that motivates you.
Don’t – stop at X number of words or pages if they are pouring out and your muse is dancing all over your keyboard. Congratulate your muse and dance with her!
Do – get all your work edited if expecting to make money writing. Adhere to established writing rules. Knowledgeable friends can edit short pieces. Build your bank of benevolent friends who will help. Have several people available so you aren’t expecting one sole person to become your private critique group. Repay their kindnesses by taking them to dinner, remembering a birthday, or generally helping them when they need it. Longer stories like novellas and novels should be edited by a professional.
Don’t – believe you are an expert and that your grammar is perfect. Your grammar may be perfect but without an edit, you may have missed certain details, like a major plot point that needs to be tied up at the story’s end. A fresh set of eyes can spot problems like that. You won’t make money trying to shop unedited work.
Do – seek a knowledgeable person when looking for your first edits. An elderly auntie with time on her hands just won’t do, unless she’s a retired English teacher or similar professional. Remember: Friends and family will not tell you what’s wrong with your work for fear of hurting your feelings, but they may questionably stare at you a lot after reading your writing.
Don’t – show your work around endlessly looking for an emotional boost. It won’t happen. Period. Doing so is not on anyone’s list of writing rules. You’ll look like a beggar and nothing more. This is one of the best writing rules you can follow.
Do – see the results of an edit as constructive criticism and a stepping stone to learning to be a better writer. Put those critiques to work right away to improve your prose.
Don’t – see the edit as negative, no matter how harsh, no matter what and how much of your long, hard effort needs correcting. Resist shredding the critique or clicking the delete button. An edit that calls for corrections may be your ticket to a perfected piece of prose that could break your career wide open.
Do – read the results of your edit thoroughly. Accept what you feel applies; disregard the rest, but not too, too quickly. A good editor knows how to bring your piece of prose in line with what’s selling today. That is what you hope to accomplish, right? You want to become known as a professional.
Don’t – allow the suggested corrections to make you feel you are not much of a writer after all. Welcome any thorough edit. It gives you more improvement to consider. See the edit as the next step to having a polished piece of prose.
Do – set your prose aside for a few days or a couple of weeks once you feel it may now be the best you can make it. The waiting period is the time you will remember little ways to make the piece even better, like putting that final twirl on the frosting that’s already on the cake.
Don’t – forget to submit the finished piece should you become totally enthralled with your next story and it alone consumes your thoughts.
Do – submit your writing when you feel it is polished. If it’s ready, you need to begin to find places to submit your gem. Again, follow the writing rules of submissions.
Don’t – put your polished prose aside thinking no one will accept it. That’s self-defeating. Get over your hesitation. It’s only an unfounded fear of not measuring up. Instead, get excited about having finished something only you can write in your own inimitable way.
Do – follow submission guidelines. They are made available to help you zero in on markets that want your work. Many publishers produce their own free lesson plans on becoming a writer. These tell you what they in particular want to see in your submitted prose.
Don’t – take guidelines lightly, thinking you can slide past the instructions. If a publisher sets a word count, stay within it. Some publishers say they will entertain longer pieces but query first. If a publisher has a theme, stick to the theme, and don’t submit something that doesn’t fit just because it’s similar in quality to others they’ve published. Whatever the publisher requires, strictly adhere to the guidelines.
Do – continue working on other stories or books once you submit the finished ones. As you write, in time, you’ll be constantly aware of following writing rules and guideline protocols.
Don’t – think you have to wait to see what happens to this story before you work on others. Unfortunately, the odds are that most short stories get rejected, perhaps because short stories and other brief prose take less time to write and so many are written. What better way to get through rejection remorse than to have more prose either already submitted elsewhere or in various stages of completion.
Do – allow a publisher their stated time to consider your story or book manuscript. A publisher will set a deadline. That means they will not decide what they will publish till after the deadline. Many publishers tell you when you can expect a response. Many publishers have their own set of writing rules with which to judge your prose, and you will never know it.
Don’t – query—email, write, or call—the publisher the minute the deadline has passed. You may have to wait a couple months past the deadline to learn the disposition of your piece. If the publisher is in your town, don’t camp out at their doorway. After the deadline, they must read all those submissions. Usually one follow-up query after a reasonable waiting period is sufficient. When making a nuisance of yourself, you risk your prose being rejected because you’ll be thought of as too difficult to work with and there are just too many great writers out there already playing by the rules.
Do – enter contests. Enter contests charging fees only if your prose is some of the best on the market. You must have a stellar story and near-perfect writing to make it worth paying a fee.
Don’t – enter contests that charge a fee. This especially applies to new writers. Exceptions apply and you must discern for yourself. Unless someone like your favorite published author has told you that your writing is spectacular, don’t pay fees.
Do – send some sort of thank you to an editor who critiques, even in some small way. An email will do. If it’s all handled through the mail, splurge and buy a stamp and a thank you card. In fact, purchase a box of business-like thank you cards. You won’t find this in writing rules. It’s just a matter of professional graciousness.
Don’t – kiss off the editor who gives you a negative critique. Send that editor a thank you for their comments, saying that all comments help you improve your writing. All editors know one another. Can you see two or more editors or publishers sitting around having coffee and discussing clients? One says, “I sent one writer what I thought were constructive criticisms and what I got back was a nasty note telling me I didn’t know my business.”
Right away, the other editors ask, “Who is this person that we need to avoid?”
Do – send a huge thank you when your prose is accepted. Not gushing, mind you. Assuming you have a Web site, a thank you can be in the form of a link to your story on the publisher’s site. This is an important way you can support the editor or publisher’s effort. This is one of the rules you might follow last, but it is not the least of them.
Don’t – stay so long in shock at getting accepted that you forget to thank the publisher and do any follow up.
Do – have a Web site or blog where you can announce your acceptance. Do post on others’ blogs and Web sites where allowed. Build friendships in the writing world. Ask those friends if they will post a note about your story with a link to it or if they will exchange a permanent link with you. You setting a link to their site helps them too. Many blog and Web site owners are hungry for good information. Managing self-promotion will keep your name in public view.
Don’t – forget that you’re in this to leave your mark in the writing world. You won’t do it by keeping your accomplishments a modest secret.
Do – celebrate, perhaps according to the size and importance of your acceptance. One short story may not be worth a trip to Paris, but selling a novel and receiving an advance might.
Don’t – let one day go by when you don’t congratulate yourself. Whether or not you have acceptances, maybe all rejections so far, congratulate yourself for doing what you love, knowing you will be published more and more as you learn the ins and outs of the craft.
Final Notes: Writing rules provide guidelines to smooth your way into a solid career. Study any lesson plans you discover. They will help you not only with the publisher who offers them but can also be a sampling of market demands at the moment.
You can make money writing, so follow the writing rules. Polish those short stories, book manuscripts, articles, and pieces of prose, and send them out.
Write as if your life depends on it.
Mary Deal is an award-winning author of suspense/thrillers, a short story collection, writers' references, and self-help. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, Artist and Photographer, and former newspaper columnist and magazine editor.
She has traveled most of her life and has a lifetime of many and diverse experiences, all of which remain in memory as fodder for her fiction. A native of California's Sacramento River Delta, where some of her stories are set, she has also lived in England, the Caribbean, and now resides in Honolulu, Hawaii. Having traveled a bit, she continues to paint and use her art and photography to create gorgeous products.
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Author, Painter, PhotographerEric Hoffer Book Award Winner
National Indie Excellence Book Awards Finalist (past)Pushcart Prize Nominee
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