Five Golden Rules for Writers

Regardless of what sort of writer you are and how much you love to write, there are probably days when you'd rather clean ditches than face another blank page.

As writers, we face common challenges; staying motivated and confident, avoiding "writer's block," and meeting goals (on time!) are some of the toughest. Here is some of the best practical advice I've come by, or discerned myself, for becoming and remaining productive, creative, and content while traversing the writer's path. Try implementing these "Five Golden Rules" and see if they work for you.

Golden Rule #1: Avoid dwelling on past work: get on with it.

This is maybe the most important, and most difficult to follow of the Golden Rules. There is actually a subset of rules under this category, since there are many ways to "dwell" and many things to dwell on. Take heed, then, that thou shalt never:

* Stop writing for a time because you received a discouraging rejection letter. Whether or not you've been published yet, mark a file folder "Acceptance Letters" and expect to fill it eventually. Your day will come.

* Stop writing for a time because you've completed something or because you've had an acceptance. There is a tendency to relax, to say: "Ah, I've done it." Savor the moment, sure; but don't get overly lazy with your writing. Move on to your next project.

* Reread every sentence, paragraph, etc. after you've just written it. Learn to disengage your "editor" self until the work is finished -- you'll be much more efficient and prolific this way.

Golden Rule #2: Accept rejection gleefully!

Well, maybe not "gleefully." But it is true: you can learn from rejections. Therefore:

* Test your work on other writers you admire and listen to what they bring up, both the compliments and the criticisms.

* If you receive a rejection letter that contains comments on why your piece was turned down, read it, file it, and think about it; decide if you should edit the work some more before sending it out again. Chances are if the editor took the time to write a note to you, they saw some kind of potential in your work -- that's the next best thing to being accepted!

* Finally, remember that you must study your markets carefully, and be selective about what article, story, etc. you send to what publication. Rejection might simply indicate that you sent your work to the wrong place.

Golden Rule #3: Keep track of everything ... everything.

If you are sending stuff out to editors, you must keep track of what you send, where you send it, and when you send it.

One good way to keep a log is to create a table, either with your word processor or by hand, with columns marked for: 1. Title of work or query; 2. Title of journal, magazine, etc. you sent to; 3. Date sent; 4. Date accepted or rejected (mark A or R, date); 5. Other places the work was sent.

* Make sure not to leave out 5, since you don't want to waste time re-sending a piece to somewhere it has been turned down. You might want to mark beside 2 how long you expect to wait for a reply, if you have this information.

* Print off extra copies of your cover letters and keep them in a file with the submitted pieces attached.

* You might also want to log how many hours you spend writing each day, week, etc., to help keep you honest.

* Organize your correspondence, research materials, notes, and other important documents and keep them in handy portable file boxes.

Golden Rule #4: Write about what interests you.

Everyone has heard the sermon about writing "what you know." It's good to keep in mind, however, that what you don't yet know can be learned, through research or contact with other people.

* As long as it interests you, it's a topic worthy of pursuing. Go to the library and look it up;watch a documentary; conduct interviews with experts; listen to people's stories, memories and impressions. Then write.

* If it bores you silly, but you feel you should write about it because: (a) it's a marketable subject/theme; (b) someone has asked you to write about it; (c) everyone else is writing about it; or (d) nobody else is writing about it -- go ahead, if you'll receive proper compensation for your boredom. If not, leave it alone.

* If your subject excites you tremendously, but seems to bore everyone else, you can: write it anyway because it's good for the soul; scour the publishing world for a suitable market, since there's bound to be someone who shares your (possibly obscure) interest; or slant your article/story to suit a particular publication.

Golden Rule #5: Stare at the wall; drink some coffee; scribble.

You can substitute the ceiling, some tea, and doodling if you wish. As long as you get away from the work for a bit to relax, ponder, daydream, pet the cat. "But that's a waste of precious time," you say. Not true. On the contrary: you can't ignore this rule and expect to flourish as a writer. Why? Because "goofing off" actually serves to fuel your imagination and restock your creative resources. You can't expect to function physically without sleep, right? Likewise, you can't expect to function as a writer unless you occasionally . . .

* Do other creative things, whether you're "good" at them or not. Make a cartoon with stick figures. Try watercolors. Take a dance class. Improvise a song while you shower.

* Move around. You'll notice that your mind tends to go numb at about the same point your butt does: that's your signal to get up and take a walk outside, wrestle with the kids, do Tai Chi, whatever. Just move.

* Is there a character in your story whose been giving you grief? Maybe you haven't gotten to know her properly yet, or she you. Invite her to shuffle about your brain while you peel potatoes and ask her a few questions -- you'll be surprised at how agreeable she becomes.

* Get out of the house! Or office. Cabin fever is a continuous occupational hazard for writers, but you don't have to succumb: get together with friends, or simply be around other people in a public place.

There you have them, the golden rules. Maybe you knew them already -- at least intuitively. I find, however, that it's good to be explicit about how we structure and govern our writing lives. Without rules to live by, and goals to strive for, our art suffers -- languishes from lack of discipline and drive. So buck up and commit the rules to memory, recite them once a day. And write, write, write!


Lisa E. Cote is a published short story writer and poet, and a professional writer and copy editor, specializing in Web copy. She is the founder of Elitelit.com, a resource site and online journal for creative writers. Lisa teaches online workshops based on her writing prompt tool, the Instant Muse Story Starter, helping her students (and herself) to live by the Golden Rules.

Lisa was born in Ottawa, Ontario, but now resides in the Seattle, Washington area, where she co-habits with two Scottish Terriers and drinks far too many lattes.

URL: Elitelit.com - For Serious Writers: http://www.elitelit.com

e-mail: [email protected]

tel: 425-917-0831 PST

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