Neil Gaiman’s Eight Rules of Writing

I love reading what great authors have to say about the craft. It’s often revelatory, and Neil Gaiman is one of my favorites. So here they are – Neil Gaiman’s Eight Rules of Writing:

  1. Write
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
  5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
  7. Laugh at your own jokes.
  8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

#3 is important, and difficult for many. Finishing has never been a problem for me, though. Finishing quickly, perhaps, but I’m stubborn, and I know I will finish eventually. #6 as well – I have no problems with imperfection, though I may need to get even more comfortable with it if I’m to finish this book and move onto the next. It’s a continuum, and I haven’t found the right spot yet.

#5 is revelatory, and exquisitely lonely. While I’m fine with doing my own thing, I like to collaborate with others as well, so I often find myself wanting to talk to my friends when I’m wrestling with a thorny scene. Sometimes they lead me to the answer, but other times they offer strong solutions. Do I take them? Do I not? It’s a case-by-case thing, but I know that when I’m getting feedback from proofreaders, I’ll pay far more attention to their problems than their solutions.

Then there’s #8. That’s the refrain. It’s the goal and the reward of the honest storyteller. As I read that, I’m uplifted. So I’ll write with assurance and confidence, knowing I’m not as good as others, but if I tell my story as best I can, I’ll get to keep telling the stories I want.

2 thoughts on “Neil Gaiman’s Eight Rules of Writing

  1. I’m leery of #5. You’re friends may not have the same outlook that you do or don’t like the same writing (either subject or style). Better you should find a good editor that you can respect (which I think you said you have). I’ve read some of Heinlein’s work before and after it’s been edited and it’s obvious his editor made dramatic improvements in his writing for example.

    • Who said he was talking about friends? He’s not saying that if someone points out a problem that it’s always objectively wrong.

      Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them…

      If someone tells you something is wrong, they’re speaking subjectively, and they’re almost always right because that’s the truth for them. It’s best to give a story to people who like the kind of thing you’ve made, and even nicer to give it to multiple people so you can weed out the outlier opinions.

      Yes, an editor is vital, and they can give more objective opinions (though still not completely objective), but that’s not the point. The point is to listen closely when someone sees a problem, but not that closely when they give you the answer. You have to come up with the answer that fits your world best. Sometimes the one they give you will be the best one, but usually not.

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