40 Writers’ “Rules for Writing”

Written by Emily Harstone

Most writers have their own special “rules for writing,” even if they don’t talk about them. I find other writers’ rules fascinating, even when I don’t agree with them. A lot can be learned by reading about other authors’ approaches to writing.

The New York Times and The Guardian have published famous author’s answers to this question on a number of occasion. The Guardian has a very long, disorganized article that collects many of the rules, which you can read here. But this article is an attempt to organize that collection and to link to other authors’ rules as well, including more recently published authors’ rules on writing.

Below are links to different writers’ rules on writing. The authors are in no particular order.

1. Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules

His most famous piece of advice? “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it”.

2. George Orwell’s 6 Tips for Effective Writing

Orwell gives readers full permission to ignore his rules.

3. Nietzche’s 10 Rules for Writing

His rules were originally written down in a series of letters to a female psychoanalyst.

4. Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules for Writing

It would be hard to dispute his first rule.

5. Jack Kerouac’s 30 Tips

He called his list “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose”.

6. Joyce Carol Oates’ 10 Rules for Writing

Oates originally released her rules as a series of tweets.

7. Geoff Dyer’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction

His rule number six is one of my favorites “Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.”

8. Jeanette Winterson’s 1o Rules for Writing Fiction

“Be ambitious for the work and not for the reward” is my favorite piece of advice from her.

9. Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments

His first commandment is “Work on one thing at a time until finished”.

10. Margret Atwood’s 10 Rules for Writing

Number 5 on her list is my favorite.

11. Roddy Doyle’s 10 Rules for Writers

His advice includes avoiding the online bookies.

12. Helen Dunmore’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction

Among other helpful tips, she advocates listening to what you have written.

13. Anne Enright’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction

Her rule number 3 is pretty controversial.

14. Johnathon Franzen’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction

Despite to his first rule or belief, I always feel like an adversary when I am reading his work.

15. 10 Writing Tips From David Hare

My favorite piece of advice from David Hare is “Style is the art of getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it.”

16. 5 Rules for Writing Fiction from P.D. James

P.D. James believes, among other things, that bad writing is contagious.

17. Hillary Mantel’s 10 Observations About Writing Fiction

Hillary Mantel’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction

Both lists are interesting, and are rather different from each other. One starts out focusing on the narrative, the other on accountants.

18.Michael Moorcock’s 10 Tips for Good Storytelling

This acclaimed Science Fiction writer has good advice for genre and non-genre writers.

19. David Ogilvy’s 10 Tips

Ogilvy was an author (of business books) but he is much better known as a legendary ad man. His tips reflect that fact.

20. 6 Writing Tips from John Steinbeck

The Paris Review originally published these excellent tips.

21. Michael Morpergo’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction

This poet and author’s rules are very helpful.

22. Andrew Motion’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction

The former UK Poet Laureate’s list is very concise and to the point.

23. 5 Rules for Fiction Writing from Annie Proulx

Annie Proulx encourages wide reading.

24. Sarah Waters’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction

Sarah Waters’s rules are the most detailed. She includes concrete information, like the fact that she has a goal of a 1,000 words a day minimum.

25. Ian Rankin’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction

His last two rules are get lucky, stay lucky.

26. Will Self’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction

Will Self’s first rule is one of my personal favorites.

27. Zadie Smith’s 10 Rules for Writing Fiction

Zadie Smith urges authors not to confuse honors with achievements.

28. Colm Tóibín 10 Rules for Writing Fiction

The Irish writer recommends that writers stay in their ‘mental pajamas’ all day.

29. Joss Whedon’s 10 Writing Tips

This list is a little different as it focuses more on script writing than fiction writing, but the information is very helpful and concrete.

30 and 31.  V. S. Naipaul’s Rules for Beginners and Amitava Kumar’s 10 Writing Rules

Amitava Kumar’s tips are part of a larger, fascinating essay that includes all of V.S. Naipaul’s Rules for Beginners. Also, I love any list that includes walking in it, and Kumar’s list does.

32. Richard Ford’s 10 Rules

Ford’s first rule is to marry someone you love, who thinks you should be a writer.

33. A.L. Kennedy’s Rules for Writing

Two of her rules involve humility.

34. Esther Freud’s 7 Golden Tips for Writing

Her last rule is “Never forget, even your own rules are there to be broken”.

35. Mark Twain’s Rules for Writing

I completely agree with his first rule.

36. C.S. Lewis’s 5 Rules

These rules were found in a letter Lewis sent to a young fan in 1956.

37.  William Faulkner’s Advice on Writing

Literary Hub collected these 20 pieces of advice from Faulkner.

38. Anton Chekhov’s writing principles

These principles were found in a letter he sent his brother.

39. Anne Rice on Writing

2o rules or “suggestions” from Anne Rice.

40. Phillip Pullman’s One Rule for Writing

“My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work.”

Bio: Emily Harstone is the pen name of an author whose work has been published internationally by a number of respected journals. She is a professional submissions adviser. You can follow her on Facebook here.