Six impossible things

Heinlein’s Rules for Writing (Mostly)

Back in 1947, in an essay titled “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction” (since reprinted several times), Robert Heinlein wrote five rules for people who want to become professional writers. They’ve been republished many times, and for the most part, they’re still good (I’ll get to that “most part” in a minute).

The rules are:

1. You must write .

2. You must finish what you start.

3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.

4. You must put it on the market

5. You must keep it on the market until sold.

The emphasis is his; I assume that, like every professional writer I know, he’d been accosted by more than his share of folks who talk endlessly about how much they want to write, but who never put more than a few paragraphs down on paper or pixels (if that). They’re good rules; numbers 1, 2, 4, and 5 are as true today as they were when Heinlein formulated them over sixty years ago.

The catch, of course, is Rule 3.

There are several problems with it. Some, like the lack of editorial time to spend working out what revisions may be needed, are the result of the way the publishing system has changed in the past sixty-plus years – when Heinlein penned these rules, there were still editors around like the great Maxwell Perkins, who could take the time to edit a rambling 800-page authorial submission down into an award-winning 400-page novel. (These days, Thomas Wolfe would have been lucky to have an editor tell him “Cut this in half, and I’ll look at it again.”) Some of the problems with Rule 3 have been there right from the start.

Rule #3 doesn’t fit with the other four rules. “Sit down and write,” “Finish it,” “Send it out,” and “Keep sending it out don’t prescribe any part of how one goes about writing and submitting; they only say that you must do it. The writer is free to find or develop whatever process works for their particular personality. These four rules are about procedures, and business procedures at that (which means they don’t vary much from writer to writer).

“Don’t edit unless an editor asks you to,” on the other hand, is about process. Process varies wildly from writer to writer; what works for one, won’t work for someone else. This rule, in particular, will work fine for those writers who, like Heinlein, can produce an almost-perfect first draft (and/or those few who still have professional editors they can rely on to ask for in-dept revisions when needed). It will work not at all for those writers whose first draft is over- or under- written, or which is otherwise deeply flawed.

Late in his career, Heinlein himself admitted that he did, in fact, revise/rewrite his work before sending it out, but he never, to the best of my knowledge, explained why he had laid down this particular rule.

I have a couple of theories about that.

The first possibility is that Heinlein was of the school of thought that felt that “good enough” was all that was necessary, ever. Since he began making a living from writing in the days when you could support yourself selling short stories to the magazines if you were prolific enough, and since “prolific enough” often involved not having time to polish and revise much (if at all), this attitude would be understandable in him. It still begs the question of how one gets to “good enough” without revising, though, especially if one tends to flawed first drafts.

My other thought, and the one I think is more likely, is that Mr. Heinlein had run into a disproportionate number of extreme revisers (those writers who polish and polish and polish, ten or twenty or fifty drafts’ worth, and still won’t send the story out because “It’s not finished; I have to go over it one more time”). Since he himself did not tend to excessive revision, he drew the conclusion that this was a common beginner mistake (it is, but it isn’t exclusively a beginner problem) which needed to be addressed. Hence the rule.

The trouble is that there’s another sort of revising mistake, to which an equal number of beginning writers seem to gravitate. These folks consider every comma of their first draft divinely inspired, and refuse to fix even blatantly obvious problems. In the SF field, a lot of them have read Heinlein’s rules, and they always cite Rule 3 at anyone who tries to tell them their stuff needs work. Me, I’ve never seen a first draft that couldn’t use at least a little polishing, and I’ve never seen a fifteenth draft that would gain enough from yet another revision pass to make it worth spending the time revising.

So my feeling is that this particular set of writing rules would be better off as a set of four, in part because there is no simple, brief way to address problems of process. You’d have to come up with a brief way of saying that those writers who think their first draft is golden need to remember that nothing is ever perfect the first time, while those writers who think that their fiftieth draft is still too deeply flawed to send out need to remember that nothing will ever become perfect no matter how many times you run it through the computer. And then you’d have to convince each set of writers to apply the half of the rule they need, instead of the other half (which will always be the one they’d prefer, given their respective tendencies as regards revision).

  1. It seems to me that #5 also doesn’t work when you take into consideration #3…i.e. if you have something out there that you’ve been trying to get published for a decade, maybe you should take another look at it and see if you can improve it, then try again.

  2. Dean Wesley Smith has a good take on what rewriting means – and it’s more towards that line of revising long past the point of usefulness.

    • Ilse – As I said, Heinlein wrote these rules in a completely different market. These days, you can exhaust the paying venues for a piece of short fiction in six months or less, you can’t make a living writing short fiction anyway, and it’s harder than ever to get a book publisher to look at an unpublished newbie’s work.

      Alex – About eight or ten years back, Dean and I had a … spirited discussion on the old AOL boards about revising. He was a lot more dogmatic then about the universal value of writing fast and not rewriting, as I remember it. Judging from this, he’s refined his theory of how and why this works so well for some people. A lot of what he says is spot-on, particularly the thing about how the writer’s experience while writing has nothing to do with the quality of the product, and in addition, he makes a strong point of the fact that every writer works differently. My only major complaint would be that we ended up posting about Heinlein’s rules within a week of each other, and he got there first!

  3. I totally fall into the second category of writers- those who need someone to pry the manuscript out of my hands to stop me from giving it just one (million) more polish. :)

  4. Fascinating post. I know it was written awhile ago but I just discovered it today!

    You said: “Late in his career, Heinlein himself admitted that he did, in fact, revise/rewrite his work before sending it out,”

    Would you cite the source for that? I searched on the net and still can’t find it. I have most of his interviews, if you give me the year he said this in I can track it down if you don’t have the source as a link.

    Thank you

    • Jacques – I’m sorry, but I don’t have a cite; I just recall it being a nine-days wonder in the writing community in the mid-to-late 80s. I don’t think it was an interview, and it was always clear that whatever he did, he didn’t do very much of it until an editor got involved.

  5. Ah okay. thank you! love your site

  6. Rule number three, if taken properly, works just as well today as it did when Heinlein coined it. The simple fact is that if your work is anywhere near professional quality, editors and agents most certainly will give you the feedback you need for revision. If it isn’t near professional quality, it simply doesn’t matter what you do. Writers should read Robert J. Sawyer’s take on these rules. He has it exactly right.

    If you don’t follow all of them, including the proper take on rule three, odds a success go down to near zero.

  7. I know that I am coming late to the discussion, but I have one thing to throw into the mix, which might explain rule #3.

    Robert Heinlein sold the first story he ever wrote.

    He may just have been good enough to think that others could also write, not rewrite and still sell.

    There is also the story he tells about writing being little more than a hobby, so he decided that he would write until he was rejected and then move on. John Campbell rejected a story, and included a small number of changes so that he would buy it. Heinlein packed it in. Months later, Campbell contacted him and asked him about the story. Heinlein told him that he had given up writing. Campbell talked him out it, saying that writing Science Fiction was his true calling and to abandon it would be a tragedy.

    I have always felt that this fact and this story go a long way to explaining rule #3.

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