One of the Simple Rules of Writing

I belong to a number of on-line writer’s groups and chat circles. There are message boards, shared interest groups on Linked-In, You-Tube channels…

I’ll be honest, I don’t work that hard at keeping up with them all.

Some have discussions that will spark my interest. Sometimes I will actively follow a particular thread until it peters out. Other times someone will ask a question or make a statement and I will feel moved to throw in my two cents worth.

I have noticed a disturbing pattern with the questions areas on a number of sites lately. While some of the posts are from people who have just started writing, a good percentage of them are from people who have been writing for a long time, who have been published, etc. The questions are usually quite general and all of them, in my humble opinion, have the same answer.

In order to properly address this phenomenon, allow me to present some of the questions to which I am referring:

  • How do I know when to end a chapter?
  • How do I do characterization?2
  • How do I know when the story is done?
  • What are the key plot points I should be aware of?

Now, I don’t mean to be an ass.
3 I recognize that there are legitimate, lengthy answers to these questions. For example, a response to the first one would depend upon the type of book the individual is writing, end with something that will keep the reader turning the page in a suspense novel but complete a thought for a non-fiction book on mathematical theory. Plus there are plenty of excellent books which address many of these issues4 in great detail.

The thing which has bothered me about these and other questions that keep popping up is that the real answer to all of them is very simple.


I don’t know if someone can teach you proper plotting if you have never read a well plotted book. If you want to learn how to properly pace a book, read books and figure out what works. If you want to know about how dialog should work, read books by people who write excellent dialog.

Conversely, you can find out how to write poor fiction where every single problem the character encounters is solved by a stroke of luck, a happy happenstance, or a similar help from the hand of fate. It’s not hard to find these books, some of the most ridiculous examples of deus ex machina have made it to the best sellers list.

The thing that really bothers me is that the impression given off by these various questioners is that they do not read. This is so incredibly disturbing. Now, I’m not saying that in order to be a good writer one has to enjoy reading.

I’m insisting that in order to be a good writer one has to enjoy reading.

Granted, I am a little biased. I can not remember a time when I did not enjoy reading. There are books that I did not enjoy reading, but even these taught me something. Simply put, I learned what I did not like. I identified areas where the authors did things which I did not care for and resolved not to do those things.

If you want to be a good writer, you have to read. You should read the types of books that you want to write. Call it market research. It just makes sense to see what other people are doing, what has been overdone, what the rules are for your specific genre.
9 You should read outside of your genre to see what other types of writing bring to the table. Find the things that you want to incorporate into your own style. Read non-fiction. It forces you to think in ways that fiction might not. A healthy brain is always a good thing. Plus, you might stumble over an interesting idea or three.

Being a reader is one of the fundamental aspects of being a writer.

Of course, you don’t have to be an aspiring author to enjoy a good book.

1 Or whatever the equivalent is once you adjust for inflation.

2 Yep, that’s how it was written.

3 Or at least not more of an ass than I usually am.

4 I really should put up a list of books on writing.

5 I took a quick break from this one to make a preliminary list. I will go over the books on my shelves to make sure I didn’t miss any really good ones and post it soon. If it doesn’t show up in a week or so, somebody e-mail me a reminder.

6 Elmore Leonard. Hands down the best for capturing character’s voices.

7 I’m not naming any names. I’m just saying that a couple of the books were made into movies starring Tom Hanks.

8 And the author’s name rhymes with Fran Frown.

9 Yes, there are rules.