Kona’s column 9: Watch out, it’s the obligatory “Ten Rules for Writers” column

June 8, 2010

“After Puckoon I swore I would never write another novel.  This is it…”

So said Spike Milligan in his introduction to “Adolf Hitler – My part in his downfall”.   In that spirit, inspired by Guardian’s recent Ten Rules For Writing Fiction series, here’s the “Ten Rules for Writers” column that I swore I’d never inflict on the world.

Rule 1 – Start.

Starting is everything.

If you’re a procrastinator, promise yourself you’ll just do ten minutes, and get going.  Forty minutes in, do not be tempted to break off and apologise to yourself for lying about the ten minutes.  Make the same promise tomorrow, and fall for it again.

If blank pages or empty screens are paralysingly intimidating, get rid of them as quickly as possible.  If you’re stuck, try producing the absolute worst poetry or prose you’ve ever written,  deliberately violating every precept of “good writing” that you can think of.  This is surprisingly exhausting.  You may find yourself falling back to some good writing just to have a rest.

Rule 2 – Stop.

Let go of the work when it’s finished, not when it’s perfect.  You may not actually be clear about when the work is either of these things – but “finished” has the advantage of being arbitrarily decreeable.

Rule 3 – Sleep.

In a state of fatigue, it’s quite feasible to be inflexibly dutiful, but extremely difficult to be dazzlingly original.   (Margaret Thatcher claimed to sleep only 5 hours a night as PM – a piece of related evidence that seems oddly compelling, if somewhat unscientific).

If you’re short of sleep you’ll still be able to get the dishwasher loaded, and maybe even file your tax return  (though frankly it would be unwise to find these capabilities reassuring on any front.)  However, you’re far less likely to have the mental vigour to do anything creative – with the possible exception of finding a fresh way to delude yourself that you’ll definitely make a start on that new piece of writing tomorrow.

Rule 4 – Habituate.

The lazy writer’s solution to the perpetual and odious requirement for extreme self-discipline is to remove all possible opportunity for the exercise of free will.

Sit down to write today because that’s what you did yesterday, what you’ll do tomorrow, what you always do at this time of the day.  Establish a daily or weekly routine that includes writing, and cultivate your drooling, idiotic slavishness to it.  Fall asleep at night with a post-productive glow, gratefully counting your inner sheep.

Rule 5 – Dress.

Be aware of the Writers’ Two Hats, neither of which may safely be left on a high shelf at the back of the wardrobe.

The first hat is for writing.  It is large, as it must encompass the extremely big head of the average creative writer.  As a result of its excessive size, the hat will occasionally slip down over your eyes, obscuring the fact that you have just produced several pages of utter drivel.  This does not matter in the least.

The second hat is for editing.  It is too tight, in order to remind you of the small-mindedness and nitpickery required for truly effective self-editing.  If you encounter a certain internal resistance to donning the editing hat, remind yourself that small-minded nitpicking is much more palatable coming from you than from some clearly half-witted but unfortunately widely-read newspaper critic.

Rule 6 – Read.

Sub-rule 6.1 – Read the good.

Choose between :

  • Option 1 – read some good work and then pick it into tiny pieces, hoping to winkle out its craftly secrets and osmose its authorial virtues.
  • Option 2 – read some good work and simply enjoy it.

Honestly, this is a no-brainer.  Stop trying to be a writer all the time, you fool.

Sub-rule 6.2 – Read the bad.

Read some work that’s simply bad (a google search on “heartfelt poems” provides a depressingly reliable starting point).  This should remind you of the austere virtues of both diligent self-editing and hard-won mastery-of-your-craft.

Sub-rule 6.3 – Read the ugly.

Read some work that isn’t bad, but that you really don’t like.  Think of it as a big plate of literary boiled cabbage:  it might be quite revolting, but it won’t do you any harm, and might just loosen you up.  If nothing else, you can hold up your little candle of erudition and bathe in the self-satisfied glow of the widely-read.

Rule 7 – Exercise.

Do not be intimidated by the sweating and panting of your exercise-loving friends.  Their activities may look like self-punishment, but the truth is that their pain is entirely overridden by a powerful and wholly legal endorphin high. A good dose of exercise can provide the same morale-boost as an accepted submission.  Just think of getting that emotional rush three times a week, without the need for SAEs.

Walking and running are great forms of exercise for writers: like writing, they can be performed (a) in solitude, (b) at a time and location to suit, and (c) with unwashed hair, in a range of comfortable-but-unfashionable attire up to and including your pyjamas.

Rule 8 – Detox.

Stop being so tolerant. Really. Just stop it.  It’s hard enough to hold your nerve as a writer in the face of the world’s general and persistent indifference to your efforts;  don’t make it tougher by interacting with people who are relentlessly whiny, negative, dismissive, or hostile.

Some individuals and groups are simply and determinedly toxic, so learn not to waste time and energy trying to argue with them, reason with them, chivvy them out of it or otherwise reform the bastards. Don’t keep buying umbrellas;  take your parade somewhere they can’t acid-rain on it in the first place.

Rule 9 – Fail.

You’ll never find out how well you can write unless you go outside your comfort zone – and, inevitably, screw up on a regular basis.

You must develop the knack of accepting your failures graciously, learning from them and moving on.  If you figure out how to do this, please send instructions.  Believe me, I will pay.

Rule 10 – Recurse.

Remember Rule 1.  Now get to it!

Kona Macphee is a UK-born, Australian-bred poet now living and working in Scotland.This column is the start of a monthly feature. She is facilitating the Poetry Society Poetry Surgeries. There will be further batch of surgeries here in the library on Saturday 17 July . You can also hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’and  follow her on Twitter.

7 Responses to “Kona’s column 9: Watch out, it’s the obligatory “Ten Rules for Writers” column”


  1. Cool. Loved the bit about “heartfelt poems”


  2. Thank you for these fab and refreshingly different (yet eminently sensible) writing rules. I’ve bookmarked them to refer to whenever I feel stuck in a rut :)

  3. Marion Says:

    Brilliant (and fun) advice, thankyou!

  4. spl5 Says:

    Lovely to have your comments and glad you enjoyed. Thanks folks :)


  5. […] enjoyed yet another excellent column from Kona Macphee, this time 10 rules for […]


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