1. Somerset Maugham once said that there are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Well, a few people didn’t get the message. Here are rules for writing a novel, the process of it, the craft, editing, and then miscellaneous rules that go with. I’ve grouped together the rules that either say the same thing or contradict each other.

Need I say not to take any of these as gospel?



The Process

  • Show up (Daniel H. Pink)
    Be persistent (Ian Rankin)
    “Faire et se taire” Flaubert : Shut up and get on with it. (Helen Simpson)
    Get on with it. (Colm Tóibín)

Turn up for work (Jeanette Winterson)

  • Write every day (Daniel H. Pink)
    Work hard (Andrew Motion)
    Write (Ian Rankin)
    Don’t give up (Ian Rankin)

Finish everything you start. (Colm Tóibín)

  • Never stop when you are stuck (Jeanette Winterson)
  • Don’t do anything else until you’ve written 500 words (Daniel H. Pink)
    Work in the morning, a short break for lunch, work in the afternoon and then watch the six o’clock news and then go back to work until bed-time. Before bed, listen to Schubert, preferably some songs. (Colm Tóibín)
  • Move (Daniel H. Pink)
    Take a break (Stephen King)
    If you get stuck get away from your desk. (Hilary Mantel)
  • Remember that while writing is solitary you should also be social (Daniel H. Pink)
  • Turn off the TV (Stephen King)
    Eliminate distractions (Stephen King)
  • Write what you know (Teddy Wayne)
    Write what you know. (Randall Silvis)
    Don’t write what you know, find out what you don’t. (Rose Tremain)
  • Decide when you write best and organize your life around it. (Andrew Motion)
  • The first draft of a book should only take you three months to write (Stephen King)
    Proceed slowly and take care. (Annie Proulx)
  • To ensure that you proceed slowly, write by hand. (Annie Proulx)
  • Write only subject that interest you. (Annie Proulx)
  • Stay in your mental pyjamas all day. (Colm Tóibín)
  • Stop feeling sorry for yourself. (Colm Tóibín)
  • No alcohol, sex or drugs while you are working. (Colm Tóibín)
  • On Saturdays, you can watch an old Bergman film, preferably Personaor Autumn Sonata. (Colm Tóibín)
  • No going to London. (Colm Tóibín)
  • No going anywhere else either. (Colm Tóibín)
  • When an idea comes, spend silent time with it. (Rose Tremain)
  • In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it. (Rose Tremain)


  • Once you’ve produced your first draft have someone read it to you (Daniel H. Pink)
  • Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings. (Stephen King)
    Leave out the part that readers skip. (Elmore Leonard)
    You don’t always have to go so far as to murder your darlings (Diana Athill)
  • Keep it simple (The Write Practice)
  • Cut: only by having no inessential words can every essential word be made to count. (Diana Athill)
  • If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. (Elmore Leonard)
  • Revise, revise, revise (Teddy Wayne)
    Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. (Randall Silvis)
    Don’t judge the first draft (The Write Practice)
    Be self-critical (Ian Rankin)
    Never be satisfied with a first draft. (Rose Tremain)
    Be honest with yourself regarding your writing. (Jeanette Winterson)
    Don’t hold on to poor work. (Jeanette Winterson)
  • Always get an outside edit (The Write Practice)
    Learn what criticism to accept (Ian Rankin)
    Listen to criticisms. (Rose Tremain)
    Take no notice of anyone you don’t respect. (Jeanette Winterson)
  • Read it aloud to yourself (Diana Athill)
  • Let your work stand before deciding whether or not to publish (Andrew Motion)
  • Write for tomorrow, not today (Andrew Motion)


  • Write for yourself first (Stephen King)
    Write a book you’d like to read (Hilary Mantel)
  • Don’t worry about making other people happy (Stephen King)
    Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. (Kurt Vonnegut)
    Write to please just one person. (Kurt Vonnegut)
  • Have a story worth telling (Ian Rankin)

Writing Craft

  • Don’t use passive voice (Stephen King)
  • Avoid adverbs (Stephen King)
    Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly (The Write Practice)
  • Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue (Elmore Leonard)
  • Avoid adverbs in your dialogue tags (Stephen King)
    Never use an adverb to modify “said.” (Elmore Leonard)
  • Don’t obsess over perfect grammar (Stephen King)
    Number one rule of writing is to obey all the rules of grammar, usage, and punctuation. (Earlham University)
  • Write one word at a time. (Stephen King)
  • Stick to your own style (Stephen King)
  • Research shouldn’t overshadow the story (Stephen King)
  • Never open a book with weather (Elmore Leonard)
  • Avoid prologues (Elmore Leonard)
  • Keep your exclamation points under control: no more than 2-3 per 100K words (Elmore Leonard)
  • Never use “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” (Elmore Leonard)
  • Use regional dialect sparingly. (Elmore Leonard)
  • Avoid detailed descriptions of characters (Elmore Leonard)
  • Don’t go into detail describing places and things. (Elmore Leonard)
    Description must do something aside from describing (Hilary Mantel)
  • Number one rule of writing is to use the active voice as much as you can. (Contentwriters.com)
  • Show, don’t tell (Teddy Wayne)
    Show, don’t tell (Randall Silvis)
  • Create three-dimensional characters (Teddy Wayne)
  • Choose a point of view (first, second, third…) (Teddy Wayne)
  • Give your characters motivations (Teddy Wayne)
  • No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader (Teddy Wayne)
  • Give the reader at least one character they can root for. (Kurt Vonnegut)
  • Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water. (Kurt Vonnegut)
  • Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action (Kurt Vonnegut)
  • Start as close to the end as possible. (Kurt Vonnegut)
  • Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of. (Kurt Vonnegut)
  • Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. (Kurt Vonnegut)
  • Skip anything that appears before “Chapter One”. (Hilary Mantel)
  • First paragraphs can usually be deleted. (Hilary Mantel)
  • Concentrate your energy on the point of change. (Hilary Mantel)
  • Think with your senses as well as your brain. (Andrew Motion)
  • Honor the miraculousness of the ordinary. (Andrew Motion)
  • Lock different characters/elements in a room and tell them to get on with it. (Andrew Motion)
  • Remember there is no such thing as nonsense. (Andrew Motion)
  • Think big, stay particular (Andrew Motion)
  • Respect the way characters may change once they’ve got 50 pages of life in them. Revise your plan at this stage. (Rose Tremain)
  • Write dialogue people would actually speak (Rose Tremain)


  • Read (Stephen King)
    Develop craftsmanship through years of wide reading. (Annie Proulx)
    Read (Ian Rankin)
    If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane. (Colm Tóibín)
  • There are two secrets to success: stay physically healthy and stay married. (Stephen King)
  • Writing is about getting happy (Stephen King)
    Love what you do (Jeanette Winterson)
    Enjoy your work. (Jeanette Winterson)
  • Trust yourself (Teddy Wayne)
    Trust your creativity (Jeanette Winterson)
  • Break writing rules with intention (The Write Practice)
  • Pray before and during the process of writing (Diana Athill)
  • Get an accountant if you’re serious about being a writer. (Hilary Mantel)
  • Be ready for anything. (Hilary Mantel)
  • Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.” (Joyce Carol Oates)
  • Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worse. (Joyce Carol Oates)
  • Know the market (Ian Rankin)
  • Get lucky (Ian Rankin)
  • Stay lucky (Ian Rankin)
  • Be ambitious for the work, not the reward. (Jeanette Winterson)


  • Don’t follow any rules. (Philip Pullman)