Many seem to believe if they just got a proper set of instructions, they could be a good writer. Many famous writers like Mark Twain, George Orwell, and Elmore Leonard have even provided aspiring writers a list of rules. Here is a Writing Tips PDF that collects rules from George Orwell, Edward Tufte, Strunk and White’s, and Robert Heinlein. I especially enjoyed Evil Metaphors and Phrases. These clichés are definitely cringe worthy, if I can be allowed to use yet another cliché.
But there is a problem with all of these lists. If hard rules were all that was necessary to become a great writer, then we’d be awash in breathtaking literature. We have writing tips, rules, and guidelines aplenty, yet they don’t seem to convey the masters’ magic. What gives? All of the rules are good writing advice, but first there must be compelling content.
I used to golf until I realized I was only pretending to enjoy the game. Prior to making this discovery, I took a lesson with two friends from a teaching pro. We spent about two hours on the range and putting green. Lots and lots of tips and advice. My head was swimming. I couldn’t get my grip right for fear my backswing was too fast.
The all-day lesson included a round of golf with the teaching pro. We presumed he would critique our play as we went along. No way. On the first tee, he told us he wouldn’t comment on our play until we were ensconced in the clubhouse for refreshments. He said we should forget everything he had told us. Forget it all. His advice was meant for the driving range and putting green. He reiterated that as we played this round, we were not to worry about grip, swing, or stance. We should concentrate on one thing and one thing only—keep our eye on the ball. Simple. Keep focused on the primary basic of all the basics. It was a fun round of golf with one of my lowest scores.
My point is that when you write a first draft, forget the rules. Focus solely on the story. Telling a great story is the real magic the masters have mastered. Don’t pull out the rules out until you start the second draft, then use them ruthlessly on the third and fourth draft. Hone and polish your manuscript until it’s as bright and shiny as a new penny. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist closing with an “Evil Metaphor.”)