Writing Rules of the Road

By Robert Forbes

Rules generally define a civilization because without them we’d be fighting all the time over resources.

Rules keep us civil.

Take driving. Without everyone adhering to the same standards, such as turn signals and red lights, there’d be chaos. Even with all the rules, there are still crackups.

But with writing, as in all art, the rules are less rigid, as the forms and means of expression are continually pushed into new directions.

While every serious writer has their own set of rules, I believe there are some basics, and here are mine.

Keep in mind: you can – and should – write your own rules.

1. Write, write, write!
You must do this. There is no substitute.
Try keeping a journal to get you going. Start a novel. Create an illustrated book. Write a free-form poem.
Think – be aware – as you write emails, tweets and texts.
If you keep a journal, keep it every day. At times you may feel like skipping, but dig in and you may be surprised at what you find.
It is hard work, can be tough, but that’s how you get good. Build strength.
It doesn’t just “come.”
Words are the vehicle, imagination is the unlimited power supply.

The corollary to this is: Read, read, read. If you want to write poetry, read poetry, but read other forms as well. The classics are rich with great writing that can be pure poetry.

2. Be open to inspiration that fires your imagination.
Look, but be sure to see your surroundings, the elements, the people.
Listen, but be sure to hear not just what is said but how it is said, in what context.
Rich sources surround you.
Be curious!
What strikes you and in what way?
It can be a phrase that danced through your head, a lyric to a song, a silly rhyme, a friend’s funny phrase, a sign seen; or, from TV, radio, a friend’s joke, a tweet, a cliché.
Take your imagination out for a spin! It is powerful.

3. Write it down.
If something does strike you, put it down somewhere, somehow. Otherwise, it will go away, no matter how brilliant you think it is. The Muse is fleeting.

4. You must rewrite if you want to be a writer.
If what you have written stinks or is great, it only gets better when you rewrite it, rework it, edit it.
Start or join a writing group that critiques each other’s work. It’s tough love.
Or hire an editor, and learn what humility is because they are usually right.
Rewrite means reread: Reread so carefully that you are checking for typos; this will focus your vision, clarify what you are trying to say. It helps, too, that when you are ready to show your work, you have given the reader the courtesy of the best possible effort on your part.
Read it aloud. How does it sound? Better yet, have someone else read it aloud. Hard truths abound in this.

5. Be concise.
If you can say it in 300 words, 250 will be sharper, clearer. And just think how distilled, how down to the essence 200 words would be.

6. Use colorful words, not plain ones
Is there a way you can say it better?, vs., is there a way you can say it with more pizzazz?
The words on a page may be black and white, but that doesn’t mean they have to be colorless.
Choose words and phrases that convey who you are.
Give your reader more than just information: paint a picture, start the music, roll the cameras, all via the words you pick.
Try this: put oomph in every text you send, email you write, paper you do for school. The more you use this skill, it will, like a muscle, get stronger.

7. Excise dull, flabby words, and repetitive phrases, clichés.
There is usually a better word to use – find it.
Don’t repeat words or constructions. They will stand out and distract a careful reader.

8. Know your grammar, punctuation and spelling rules.
Once you know the rules, you are allowed to break them, stretch them, even discard them. You really cannot be a painter and not know how to draw. Fundamentals give you a foundation strong enough to build upon.

9. Use specifics.
To move along, any form of narrative needs specifics, the facts, details that set the scene, your characters. Season? Time of day? Is the moon up? Music playing? What’s that smell? Etc.

10. It’s ok to use big words.
Don’t talk down to your readers. Assume they are smart and want to be smarter by spending time with you.
Use clever words, but only one time each.

11. Don’t be afraid. Challenge yourself.
Plunge in. You might feel you are walking naked down a main street, so get used it. Look inside yourself: that is where the soul of art resides. Putting it on paper lets you confront it in a rational way, takes some fear out.
See what you are capable of, find your strengths and weaknesses, build your writing muscles, and venture into unknown territory.

12. There are writing mechanisms you need to choose.
There are many at your disposal. One is the narrative point of view. Will it be omniscient? Just from the p.o.v. of one character? Will you include thoughts as well as words?
Another is tense: present or past? Start writing, try both and see which feels better.
It’s all up to you.

13. Finding your audience.
Who do you want to write for? Get started and then see where you are headed.
Only by writing will you find out.

14. Everyone loves a story.
Be a story teller when you can. It is a universal art, flowing, pulling.
Expect the unexpected not just in life but from your characters, your story. Sure, you’re the boss of your created universe, but if you are open, everyone and everything in it can talk to you, inspire you, thrill you, upset you, move you, reach you, teach you.

15. Use the tools of the trade.
Always have a dictionary at hand, for clear meanings and for synonyms.
A rhyming dictionary is great, too.
What do you like to use to write? Make it easy to do. Try an iPad, a spiral notebook, a legal pad, or a laptop. Or a smartphone, a tape recorder, or maybe a typewriter. Whatever gets your job done is fine.
Keep your notes. You may need to refer to them at some point.
Make backups, use a cloudsource like Dropbox, or print it. Be careful when you hit delete. Always save.

16. Be aware of your writing environment.
You may think this is secondary, but try to find a place where you like to write and it will lead to discovering a way to work that is good for you; it can be comfortable or not, noisy or quiet. It can become, as Virginia Woolf said, a place of one’s own, that is conducive to your work and your writing routines.

17. Add the disciplines you need to push yourself and to thrive.
Some writers like put down a certain amount of words per day before lunch. Some need coffee and classical music.
Almost everyone needs a deadline, a goal; it focuses effort and stimulates the creative juices terrifically. For others, though, a deadline can cause panic, freezing up, blank sheets of paper.
Some go with a flow and pick out the good bits later. Some consciously craft each phrase, which may seem slow but it works for them. One writer stops in mid-sentence to help her get going again the next day.
Do what it takes to be a writer in the zone, lost in the sauce of words and imagination.

18. Do the homework.
Always do the research, get your facts right. Laziness will get you in unneeded trouble.
If you don’t know something put in TK and fill it in later. This works for place names, character names, certain facts, etc.

19. Rejection is not failure.
It is a road bump or a detour only. It’s also real life.
Look how long it took JK Rowling with Harry Potter; George Lucas with Star Wars. It can take years to get something rolling.
It’s ok, natural, to feel discouraged. Just don’t give up. Sure, not everybody wins, but good things happen ONLY if you are in the arena.

20. Work hard, have fun!
I like to make myself laugh. Enjoy yourself and others will join you.

These rules and suggestions may someday help you grow as a writer in school or college and may someday smooth the way to finding a publisher. Or with this new world of electronic publishing, there are lots of ways to go right now. Explore them!