Home > Editing, Writing > Heinlein’s Rules For Writers

Heinlein’s Rules For Writers

I dabble in writing science fiction (dabble = not attempting to sell it at this time), and most of us who do that are familiar with Robert Heinlein’s Rules For Writers. I don’t see the rules come up in blogs nearly as often with romance writers, or erotica writers. I think they work equally well for all of us who produce genre fiction. Heck, these five rules established my non-fiction career.

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

Science fiction author Robert Sawyer has more to say, and says it well.

I want to add my own half-penny to his two cents on #3 (if you’re too busy to click the link, he says, in part “And although many beginners don’t believe it, Heinlein is right: if your story is close to publishable, editors will tell you what you have to do to make it salable”). He is absolutely right. If you’re close, you’ll get the editorial order the rule calls for. If you’re not, your own revision isn’t going to get you any closer or you’d have already done it. You need to find an editor, a partner, or a functional critique group.

As a side note, that’s another downside to writing erotica. I need an editor, or at least a writing partner who doubles as an editor.

I’m good friends with several top notch editors. It’s just that when they heard about what I’m writing these days, they all got this… expression. One of them even asked if I put myself in the stories. Argh! No! Do you put yourself into your space operas? But now that I know what you’re thinking, I will show you a draft the instant hell freezes over!

Also, if you do put yourself into your space operas, knock it off, Mary Sue.

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  1. January 20, 2010 at 12:20 PM

    Respectfully, Robert Heinlein’s rule about revision is utter nonsense. If you never revise, except to editorial order, your chances of selling are vastly reduced. Don’t imagine that any one writer has the magic answers, because the experience of being a published writer is different for everyone. But one thing is true across the board – you learn more by rewriting than you do by writing.

    To reject the idea of self-revision in this arbitrary way is to ignore a vital tool in the writer’s kitbag. It also encourages laziness in newbies, who might then use this rule to avoid doing essential improvements until an editor has asked for revisions. Anyone who thinks their mss can’t be improved BEFORE being sent out somewhere is going to need to be astonishingly talented – as Heinlein was, of course – or they’re going to end up with an awfully large number of rejection slips.

    Again, respectfully.

  2. January 23, 2010 at 12:51 AM

    That rule triggers a lot of debate wherever it goes 🙂 And I certainly respect your opinion, Jane, you’ve got quite a lot of background to draw from when you speak!

    I do think he is misunderstood. I don’t know any successful writers – even Heinlein in his day – who send out their first draft. Certainly I’m not trying to peddle any manuscripts exactly as they emerge from my keyboard. Gah.

    But once I’ve got something polished up to the best of my ability, and assuming I’m not working with an editor already, I send it out. Boom. Doing another rewrite, when all I have to go on is the ability I had when I did the polishing pass, seems like a black hole. This has worked for me with non-fiction and memoir pieces.

    I’m flying into new turf with fiction, though, so I would love to hear your thoughts (assuming you see this – I didn’t realize comment moderation was on as a default so a few days have passed) – how many drafts do you prefer to run a manuscript through before submission?

  3. January 23, 2010 at 7:53 AM

    As many as it needs. 😉

    Seriously though, long fiction is a huge and very different beast to shorter fiction and poetry. The latter I would get as near to (my idea of) perfection before they go out. The former should be of publishable quality – and each writer must rely on his or her own experience when judging that, so it’s a tricky thing – before being submitted, but ‘perfection’ on such a large canvas must be impossible to achieve, surely?

    With partials, there is ample scope for the kind of polishing that might take you through four or five drafts. But after a while you run the risk of terminal boredom, and once you get there, the book is lost to you.

    So redraft lightly with a novel, but heavily with shorter forms. But you must redraft. Never send out a first, or even perhaps a second draft, dep. on experience. An experienced writer is likely to produce a very clean and competent first draft, but if you send it out and it’s pub. in that form, you may live to regret that. Embarrassing early books can haunt you for a very long time … so you owe it to yourself to make the effort, just in case your editor doesn’t!

  4. January 23, 2010 at 1:53 PM

    Indeed. There are essays out there of mine dating from 1999 that come up when you google my other identity. They are not only first drafts, but they were never meant to be seen by any but a few close friends. And yet they’re the first thing a potential editor sees if she googles me.

    I have never completed a manuscript that was over 30K words, which is why I’ve been lurking on the blogs of those who have. I appreciate your comments very much.

  5. August 14, 2010 at 2:51 PM

    I interpret Rule Three this way:

    Write *your story*. Satisfy yourself that you have polished your story to the best of your ability. *Do not rewrite* simply because it was rejected by the first editor who saw it. Do not try to *guess* why it was rejected. There are any number of potential reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the story.

  6. October 13, 2011 at 3:55 PM

    rule three isn’t about NEVER revising grammar mistakes and typos. it’s about after having polished the story the best that you can, you refrain from revising and keep sending it out UNTIL an editor says revise it. by this way, your manuscript will go through the rounds unchanged and you would not spend your life second-guessing which version might’ve passed muster to which editor. you’ll keep asking yourself: what if this version i sent out to editor 1 is the one editor 2 might like?

    so the simple solution to that is to simply refrain from revising until an editors demands for a revision so you can make the sale. that’s not meant to say NEVER revise. what a stupid assumption. any writer worth his salt knows just on the first proofreading alone, many mistakes and typos can be found. to take rule 3 to mean NEVER revise is a sign of a stupid mind.

    and to revise your manuscript’s “style and substance” on the advice of others is a surefire way to kill your voice. the only revision that needs to be done are those that are concerned with errors. and yes, plot plausibility and character consistency are considered part of that.

  7. Generalist
    November 30, 2011 at 6:29 PM

    Check the phrasing for the third rule and consider that it uses the word ‘refrain.’ It doesn’t say ‘DO NOT’ rewrite.

    I consider it to be a warning for people to avoid getting into a constant cycle of rewriting things in search of perfection. Writing is a design endeavor where you start with an imperfect product and work on refining it until it is ready to be released into the ‘real’ world.

    At some point, if you want to get the product to market, you have to shoot the design engineers (aka writer) and hand it over to the production engineers (aka publishers).

    I also seem to recall that Heinlein wrote the article in 1947 and had clarified things over time.

    One of my takes on the third rule is the fact that you have already done the necessary editing and rewriting in order to meet the demands of rule two, finishing the story. What ever rewriting you do to meet rule is to strengthen the story. If you keep going back and rewriting things because of new ideas or in the pursuit of absolute perfection, you’ll never get to rule four, putting the work on the market.

  8. February 20, 2012 at 7:01 AM

    Also, at some point re-writing and masturbation bear a strong resemblance to one another. Both can be enjoyable, but carried to extremes they keep you from moving forwards.

    When you re-write, you’re polishing and repolishing an expression of an idea. You’re not telling new stories. You’re not learning new things about your craft.

    There are times to re-write, and times to move forward. Knowing when to do each can be difficult.

  1. February 26, 2010 at 8:55 AM
  2. August 8, 2010 at 5:02 PM

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