Heinlein’s Rules on Writing

RAH_1929_Yearbook

Recently, Robert A. Heinlein’s Memorial Lecture he delivered to the Brigade of Midshipmen at his alma mater in April 1973 came to my attention, thanks to a thoughtful friend who sent it my way.

As I have never been greater admirer of science-fiction, Heinlein’s work did not spark my interest. That may have been a mistake, although one easily rectifiable by a visit to a local library.

But what most certainly did ignite my interest were his thoughts on writing. Not only  has he spoken frankly about it, but, in a matter of fact way, he dismantled some of the long-established and carefully cultivated myths about writing. Most of which I subscribed to enthusiastically for the best part of my life. The result is rather obvious!

Such as absolute necessity, if not holy duty, of rewriting;

‘A beginner finds hard to believe that no-rewriting rule. A myth has grown up that a manuscript to be suitable for publication must be re-written at least once. Utterly false! Would you refry an egg? Tear down a freshly built wall? Destroy a new chair? Ridiculous! This silly practice of rewriting is based on the hidden assumption that you are smarter today then you were yesterday. But you are not. The efficient way to write, as with any other work, is to do it right the first time! I don’t mean that a manuscript should not be corrected and cut. Few writers are perfect in typing, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Most of us have to go back and correct such things, and above all – strike out surplusage and fancy talk. The manuscript then needs to be retyped for neatness; retyping is not rewriting. Rewriting means a new approach, a basic change in form. Don’t do it!’

Or the one that has grown exponentially in the recent years – classes in ‘creative writing’;

‘That one word is: Don’t! Creativity cannot be taught. One may teach grammar and composition; it is not possible to teach creative writing and any person who claims to do so is a fake. Creative artists are never taught; they invariably teach themselves. You can teach a young artist the tools of his trade; you cannot teach him to create. Nobody taught Shakespeare, or Mark Twain, or Edgar Allan Poe, or Erle Stanley Gardner or Rex Stout – and no one can teach you.’

And lastly the one I held especially dear; that writing is not an ordinary job, or a

Midshipman Heinlein, from the 1929 U.S. Naval ...
Midshipman Heinlein, from the 1929 U.S. Naval Academy yearbook (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

job at all for that matter, but a calling of a highest order, almost sacred duty known only to those called upon. Then I read this;

‘I did not become a writer to see my name in print; I didn’t give a hoot about that and had no literary ambitions. I was a naval officer by choice; I become a writer by economic necessity. I needed to pay off a mortgage and started writing to earn the money. I was in a poor health and could not handle a steady job – nor were there any jobs.’

He then proceeds to list those who were forced into writing careers by either; their ill health, or utter un-employability, or both, and become successful writers; H.G.Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Cyrano de Bergerac, and many others.

While the whole piece is truly brilliant as, apart from writing, Heinlein also speaks about science fiction as ‘realistic fiction’ and about those things in life he considered to be most important (‘spelled out in simple Anglo-Saxon words “patriotism” reads “Women and children first!”), he leaves us with seemingly simple Five Rules for Success in Writing:

  1. You must write,
  2. You must finish what you write, 
  3. You must refrain from re-writing except to editorial order, 
  4. You must place it on the market, 
  5. You must keep it on the market until sold. 

AND:

‘That’s all. That’s a sure-fire formula for getting anything – anything at all! – published. But so seldom does anyone follow all five rules that the profession of writing is a soft touch for those who do – even though most professional writers are not too bright, not too wise, not too creative. For these rules work in series, not in parallel. If you bilge any one of them, you bilge completely and your writing will not be published.’

 

Author: Daniela

Reader, Writer, Mother, Freethinker, Habitual Day Dreamer, Blogger - Sharing Ideas, Poetry, Prose, and Conversations on the Lantern Post!

27 thoughts on “Heinlein’s Rules on Writing”

  1. What I love about writing is the freedom and personality of the writers–not only in style and creativity but also in the process of writing. I enjoyed this exchange.

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    1. Yes, it is indeed true that every writer brings his/hers unique vision and voice to writing. It is precisely this characteristic that makes writing interesting; no two writers’ describe their vision in the same way.

      Many thanks for reading and commenting,
      Daniela

      Like

  2. I bilge on “you must place it on the market”. Blogging gets me read without getting sold. Um.

    On Heinlein, I enjoyed “Stranger in a strange land” about a human brought up by Martians who returns to the entirely alien culture of Earth.

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    1. Hi Clare,

      It could be said that blogging is a sort of a market, even if rewards are not monetary!

      Thank you very much for reading and commenting -:)!

      All the Best,
      Daniela

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  3. After reading this I still don’t understand why famous writers are so strongly opposed to rewriting. Maybe, when John McPhee and Stephen King advise writers to rewrite, they actually mean “retype.” Or maybe every writer is simply different; to each his own.

    I for one believe in the power of rewriting, not just to “strike out surplusage” but also polishing, moving, adding, and eliminating elements of a story. Does getting rid of inconsistencies, for example, count as “retyping”? My thoughts are usually abstract when they arrive on paper, so “a basic change in form” is usually necessary to make the final piece legible.

    I for one can never “do it right the first time.” Maybe I will improve with time or, if I really have to follow Bukowski and Heinlein’s advice—provided I understand them correctly—I should give up writing? I don’t want to, though.

    That said, I do agree with him that creative writing can never be taught. This piece in Salon sums it up pretty nicely.

    Thank you for sharing this. Happy writing!

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    1. Hi,

      Every writer is indeed different and brings his/hers unique point of view. Accordingly, some of those views will resonate strongly with certain type of audience or aspiring writers, than the others. If rewriting, (however you definite it) works for you; by all means stick with it. I do believe that writing is deeply personal experience and therefore each one of us must find our own path, our own road to it. But what ever you do – never give up on something you love! That, in short, sums up my own view on writing … and life actually -:)!

      Thank you very much for reading, commenting and for the link -:)!

      All the best,
      Daniela

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  4. Great post Daniela .. making notes for sure..
    Also, Happy Mother’s Day (it is today in the states) to you🙂

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  5. I grew up reading reading Heinlein although I never read this piece on the rules of writing. Of course Heinlein believed everyone should be much more than just a writer. Here is his famous view on specialization:

    “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

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    1. Hi Malcolm,

      Thank you so much for this wonderful comment -:)! I did not read Heinlein but I am going to as I am really admiring his views on writing, but also on life in general -:)!

      As a human being, I can safely confirm ability to perform, more or less successfully some of those tasks; change a diaper for sure, closely followed by cook a tasty meal, possibly write a sonnet, comfort the dying … and having seen men die in this life, can say that; sadly, gallantry is mostly absent. Dare I say … Heinlein would have been disappointed with me!

      Many thanks,
      Daniela

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  6. Daniela, may I please encourage your (demand?) that you read Heinlein! He is my favorite SF author. He wrote quite a lot, so you have much to choose from, and all of it is excellent.

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    1. Oh indeed you may demand it -:)! I have already decided to read his work even if SF never really featured on my ‘reading radar’!

      Many thanks for visiting the Lantern -:)!

      Daniela

      Like

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