Remember when you were a kid? A large part of the learning process was accomplished by doing. And then being screamed at by an adult to never do it again. Like putting your hand under the running hot tap. Like running out onto a road to collect a ball without checking for oncoming cars. Like riding a mini motorbike into a barbed wire fence (okay, so maybe this one was only me).
It would have been so much easier if someone had told me before I did any or all of these things not to do them instead of waiting until after I’d done them and then shouting at me. Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference. But we’ll never know because nobody thought to try the learning process in a different order.
Even for older children these days, a common refrain is, “But nobody told me not to do it.” So here’s a few commandments for writers out there. You probably shouldn’t have to be and don’t need to be told these things. But just in case, here they are so that you can never say, “But nobody told me not to do it.”
1. Thou shalt not plagiarise.
This is the worst possible sin of any writer. Not to be a bad writer because we’re all bad writers at some point. But to steal the writing of another writer and claim it as your own. Writers are the only ones who know how hard other writers work and so it should go without saying that we don’t steal other writers’ writing. But here I am saying it, just in case.
If you want to use the writing of another writer, then ask. Or at the very least use a pair of quotation marks and credit the writer who wrote it. Because I can’t think of a single good thing that ever came from plagiarising another writer’s work.
2. Thou shalt not embrace clichés, stereotypes and plot twists that make no sense.
Which would you rather have someone say about your writing? “It reminded me a lot of these other books I’ve read.” Or: “I’ve never read anything like it before.”
If you spend the majority of a book convincing the reader that the main character is too afraid to stand up to the villain, only to have them suddenly do it, then it makes no sense. In fact, it will seem like the only reason the main character stood up to the villain is because you wanted to finish writing the book.
Writing is like ballet in that respect. Readers want to see the movement, not the effort behind the movement. If they can see the effort behind the movement, if they can see plots straining under the weight of clichés and stereotypes and twists that there are no justification for, then it won’t be a satisfying reading experience.
On the other hand, if they can see the lack of effort behind the movement, the laziness of poor writing and one-dimensional characters, then that won’t be a satisfying reading experience either.
All they should see is movement. Cohesive, logical, original, surprising, and worthy of both you and them.
3. Thou shalt not write only what you know.
Writing what you know is a great way to get started. But it’s limiting. Writing should expand the mind, not trap it between an ever shrinking set of walls. And that includes yours as well as your readers. If you don’t know much, go out and get some life experience. Travel blogs are popular for a very good reason; because writers want to broaden their horizons and readers want to go along for the ride.
So while you can write about the suburban life, the wife, husband and 2.4 kids, it shouldn’t be all you write about. Write about flying helicopters and becoming a spy and travelling to the moon. And you don’t need to do any of these things before writing about them. You just need to be prepared to do a bit of research and let your imagination have free rein.
4. Thou shalt not write tomorrow what can be written today.
Writing is great because it can usually fit in around everything else you have to do in your life. But every time you find yourself with a gap in your schedule, potential writing time, and choose not to write is another day, week, month or year that you will remain undiscovered and unread.
Time is the most precious tool in a writer’s toolbox and taking advantage of it can be the difference between a book that is published next year and a book that is published next decade.
5. Thou shalt not claim to be too busy writing to read.
Reading is one of the best ways to learn how to write. By seeing how others are doing it. By seeing what others are doing. By seeing what they’re doing wrong and what they’re doing right. And then by removing the wrong from and applying the right to your own work.
If you don’t read the writing of others, how can you have any right to expect others to read yours? And if you don’t read, how can you know that the book you’re slaving over isn’t almost identical to something someone else has already written?
6. Thou shalt not submit first drafts to publishers.
Submitting first drafts to publishers is a sure fire way of getting your manuscript sent straight to the recycling bin, whether that’s the electronic version on a computer’s desktop or the physical variety next to the office desk. And if you really piss them off, it could even be a black mark against your name every time you submit something in the future. It’s one thing not to be remembered, but it’s another entirely to be remembered and rejected out of hand.
Anything worth submitting to a publisher, someone who reads and assesses books for a living, is worth being in at least its second or third iteration, but more likely in its fourth or fifth. Save yourself and the publisher the effort and the embarrassment.
7. Thou shalt not claim to know it all.
Nobody ever knows everything about writing. There is no longer journey than the writing journey. Not even life. And usually when you think you might be nearing a point where you might be close to knowing it all, that’s when you die. Thus ensuring the writing journey is longer even than the living journey.
And because you can’t know it all, when you work with an editor, you must give careful and impartial consideration to everything they say. They won’t know it all either but together you will know more than either of you can individually.
8. Thou shalt not have expectations.
Yes, it would be nice if a publisher read your book, declared it the best thing they’d ever read and offered you a ten year contract for a book a year with guaranteed first print runs of a million copies. But that happens to so few writers I’m not sure I could even use all the fingers on my hands to count them.
Writing is something writers do because they don’t know how not to write. If you got into writing to become famous or to make a quick buck, then boy are you in the wrong industry.
Write if you will. Write if you must. But have no expectation other than this: no matter how hard you work, it might still never happen.
9. Thou shalt not be humble.
Blow your own trumpet because you can guarantee nobody else will. They’re all too busy blowing their own. Writing is one of those rare talents that cannot simply be demonstrated. Somebody must be willing to believe you are talented before they ever read a word of what you have written.
Singers and musicians can busk. Actors and directors can make a short film and upload it to Youtube. Everybody seems willing to listen and watch for a few minutes without feeling like they’ve wasted their time, even when the have. (A guy eating wasabi? Seriously?) But apparently asking someone to read something is a real imposition.
So be confident. Campaign for your writing. Because unless they’re getting paid, no one else will.
10. Thou shalt not believe the hype.
Just because a thousand screaming girls tell you you’re wonderful does not make it true. Okay, I’m mostly talking to Justin Bieber here but there’s a cautionary tale in there for writers, too. Some people have a penchant for taking fandom way too far. If you’re lucky enough to have fans, people who genuinely, honestly believe you’re the best writer who ever lived, please remember that while it’s flattering, in all likelihood it’s also not true.
As the old, crude but very accurate saying goes, everybody’s shit stinks.
*First published in Project December: A Book about Writing