Writers on Writing
Writers on Writing


History loves a good rebel like James Dean, Billy the Kid, Genghis Khan, and...Charlotte Bronte? Yes, you read correctly. You can't tell us that the author of Jane Eyre didn't break a few "rules of writing" while she was penning her novel. Here are some pearls of wisdom from a few of our favorite authors on how they break the rules.


Rule #1: Less is more

Charles Baxter on breaking this rule: “Philip Levine's essay on his teacher John Berryman reminds us that it isn't quantity in adjectives or adverbs that should bother us, but quality. Four words instead of one might be undesirable when you're giving directions, but poetry and great fiction don't depend on what is "sufficient" except in plot summaries. They depend on what is eloquent and beautiful and true.” 


Read more: Charles Baxter on Craft



Rule #2: Don’t worry about what other people think

Stefan Merrill Block on breaking this rule: “Shame, after all, is meticulous and creative; it is the fear of public shame that drives one to revise draft after draft, trying to find the better, more artful way to tell a story. But shame is more than our best tool. For most artists, it’s constitutional. Shame is self-awareness and empathy gone neurotic. It is an effect of our perception of how others perceive us, and it’s hard to imagine a good artist who is not very aware of how he is coming across.”


 Read more: For Shame! 



Rule #3: Reading makes you a better writer

Gabriel Roth on breaking this rule: “The first step in writing a novel is reading novels, is one of those truistic bits of canonical wisdom. Most would-be novelists are pleased to hear this because they already read novels. Hey, they think, I’m ahead of the curve! Ha ha ha if only. 

I am sorry to inform you that, although you have doubtless been reading novels since you were a baby, you have been reading them wrong.”


Read more: How to Read Like a Writer



Rule #4: Write what you know; you are an expert on your own life

Alexander Chee on breaking this rule: “This was an important early lesson for me as a writer: You know the least about your life precisely because, for living in it, you might barely notice it. You are from a place and you believe you know it, but your memories are not just unreliable, they are full of research holes.” 


Read more: Research Your Life



Rule #5: Ignore the voice in your head that says you can’t do it

Fiona Maazel on breaking this rule: “What’s needed for this work is a healthy ego and an even healthier capacity for self-disgust. Ego gets you writing; self-disgust makes you revise. It’s a delicate relationship that needs to be protected, lest you are steeped in one more than the other.”


Read more: The “It” Factor



Rule #6: Readers sympathize with likeable characters

Christina Baker Kline on breaking this rule: “A character can be sharp-witted, twisted, arrogant, contradictory, vain, narcissistic, boorish, even morally repugnant (think Tony Soprano)—as long as the reader understands the character’s motivations. When readers don’t respond, the problem isn’t the character’s misery or self-absorption or churlishness. (Here I’m thinking of Emma Bovary.) The problem is that the reader can’t see far enough beneath the character’s surface actions to understand the deeper feelings underneath.” 


Read more: What Does It Really Mean When People

Say Your Character is Unsympathetic? 



Rule #7: Find your voice

John Wray on breaking this rule: "It's the writing itself that needs to be authentic, in other words; not the writer. Once I realized this, many years after college, I was suddenly free to begin, because I'd left my inhibitions behind. 'Express yourself!, is the great rallying cry of all the arts—not just of fiction—but sometimes you have to escape yourself, just a little, to create something true.” 



Rule #8: Write, write, write, and keep on writing

Dawn Raffel on breaking this rule: "Procrastination, in its weird way, is part of the process. While I’m procrastinating, I’m never really free of the task; I’m turning the creative problem over and over in my mind, consciously and unconsciously, reformulating the terms. At some level I am saying no to the easy, knock-it-out solution, the tired-and-true, the familiar."


Read more: The Truth About Writer's Block









Looking for more writing inspiration? Check out our full archive of craft pieces


Our Model Short Story column features writers on their favorite examples of the form for your inspiration.