Games Writers Play #15: Heinlein’s Rules

Scott William Carter   April 27, 2010  

gwpHere’s some powerful rules, originally created by noted science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, which have helped lots of writers get out of their own way.  The longer you’ve been doing this — and by this I mean writing aimed at professional publication — the more you realize that though writers like to complain about the brutal reality of publishing, and about those nasty gatekeepers preventing their masterpieces from reaching readers, the truth is that the biggest impediment to success for most writers is actually . . . themselves.

“Oh, I didn’t finish that story.  It wasn’t any good.”

“Mail it?  Why mail it?  They wouldn’t want this piece.  It’s not right for their magazine.”

“Yeah, I’m almost finished.  I just have to do a couple more rewrites and then it’ll be perfect.”

How often have you heard yourself, or another writer you know, saying something like what’s above?  Well, Robert A. Heinlein had too, which is why he laid out some guidelines for achieving success.  Here they are:

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’s sold. *

Very simple rules, but trust me, very tough to follow.  Each them addresses a common pitfall — not writing, not finishing, not mailing, and giving up too easily.  The 3rd rule has caused by far more outcry and disagreement than the others.  Rewrite?  How can I not rewrite?  Isn’t that what our English teachers told us was the secret to success?  Well look, each writer has to decide for themselves how to apply these rules, but you might want to give them a shot before ruling them out.  If you haven’t achieved the kind of success you want as a writer, what do you have to lose?

* Hat tip, of course, to Robert A. Heinlein.  Originally appeared in the 1947 essaying “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.”

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