The Ten Commandments of Writing

I wrote a version of this as part of a one-time writing consultation that I donated to a silent auction.

“Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.”

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

“If you can’t really believe you’re a writer, why not pretend you’re one? You pretended when you were little; why not now?”

—Carolyn See, Making a Literary Life

The Ten Commandments of Writing

  1. Write now: start thinking, acting, and talking like a writer.
  2. Pay careful attention to space and materials.
  3. Capture inspiration when it strikes, and hold on to it.
  4. Write something every day.
  5. Share your writing with others.
  6. Be a sculptor: know when to make clay, and when to shape it.
  7. Read, read, read; then read some more.
  8. Stretch yourself, mentally and physically.
  9. Engage in complementary activities.
  10. Practice the fine art of rule-breaking.

One of my pet peeves in writing groups is people who preface their reading with disclaimers, telling me in advance how weak their piece is.  So I will not begin by saying that I have no business writing this piece, that I’m only marginally published and that this advice consists mostly of things I’ve either picked up in passing or stolen from other writers (and then disguised, of course).


1. Write now: start thinking, acting, and talking like a writer.

By definition, a writer is someone who writes. That’s it—it’s that simple. Being a writer has nothing to do with quantity or even quality of output. Do you want to be a writer? Then write already! Writing is a verb, not a noun.

Okay, obviously there’s more to it than that: there are things you can do to support your writerly habit. But it all begins here. Although you can always strive to become a better writer, this goal should not belong to the future. Be a writer now. Tell yourself you are one, and don’t shy away from admitting it to others. With practice you’ll feel less self-conscious, and the more you believe you’re a writer, the more you’ll become one.

While you’re at it, cultivate the personality of a writer, too. Practice being aware, curious, disciplined, playful, and persistent. Think of yourself as a journalist at large, always searching for a lead or an angle, a verbal photographer looking for that perfect snapshot. Revel in words, and never cease toying with them and searching for just the right one.

2. Pay careful attention to space and materials.

Just as setting is a critical aspect of stories, so it is with the act of writing. Find various places to write that work well for you—certain chairs and rooms, libraries, coffee shops, the park, the woods. Then find places where writing is more difficult for you. Rotate through all these spots from time to time to keep things fresh. The goal is to be able to write anywhere.

Similarly, you’ll need to experiment with various writing implements. Look for a quickly flowing pen with a comfortable grip, a pen that has some hope of keeping up with the flow of your thoughts. A keyboard certainly helps with speed, but when it comes to journaling I, at least, find there’s no substitute for paper and pen. Yet as with the places you write, never use the lack of deal circumstances as an excuse not to write. Your hunger to write must be stronger than that. Besides, a real musician never blames his instrument.

As for journals, there are countless sizes and styles from which to choose. I usually go with something cheap but sturdy, something that travels well. Natalie Goldberg advises against buying very nice journals, as you could shy away from putting your rough and unready thoughts down in their pages.

3. Capture inspiration when it strikes, and hold on to it.

One thing can be said with certainty about writing: you can never tell when the Muse will find its capricious way to you, or how long it will deign to share its company with you. So you have to be ready. You should never find yourself without some means of jotting down even a one-word summary of the thoughts that pass fleetingly by. Whether you carry a journal or notebook with you at all times, or keep a scrap of paper in your pocket, or write on your hand, for goodness’ sake, don’t wait to write it down. Keep a notebook by your bed. Buy a pocket-sized digital recorder to take with you in the car. Never be farther than arm’s reach from a writing utensil.

Of course, merely taking down an idea won’t help very much if you can’t find that note later. The other thing to do, then, is come up with a system for what to do with all your random scraps of ideas. Whether it’s files in a filing cabinet or folders on your computer desktop, figure out something that works for you, so that you can gradually increase your personal stock of ideas, images, settings, plots, and characters.

4. Write something every day.

The saying is as old as ancient Rome: nulla dies sine linea, no day without a line. In my reading of this, it doesn’t necessarily mean a fully formed chapter, story, essay, or poem. Scribble down something, anything, every day. Write a letter, write whatever pops into your head. Above all, start journaling.

I know I could never claim to be a writer unless I kept up my journaling habit. Use your journal to try out story, essay, and poem ideas. Consider it a cheap therapist, or easy meditation. Just let yourself go, and write as much as possible without stopping; write whatever pops into your head. Look in books and on websites for writing prompts and other free-writing exercises.

When I journal something that I may want to use later, I mark it with a squiggly line along the margin and a star at the top of the page. Journaling is easily the best way to make writing a habit and to develop fluency, the ability to generate a stream of words without being held back by thoughts of how good or bad they sound.

5. Share your writing with others.

No artist is fully an artist without an audience. Whether you sing or draw or act or dance or write, no artistic form is complete unless part of what’s created is also shared. And by this I mean much more than simply publishing (although of course that remains the goal for most of us writerly types). I’m not even talking about waiting until you have a finished product, or something you consider worth sharing. Find audiences who will support you as you work, people who will give you helpful feedback.

Aside from regular journaling, the best thing you can do for your writing is to join (or organize) a writing group. Just as exercising becomes much easier when you have a partner (who will know when you’re slacking off), there’s something magical about a deadline (Thursday, 7pm, writing group—I have to have something to share!!). Typically, my writing groups/classes consist of two segments: a free-writing exercise, and sharing/critiquing things we each have written outside of class. and Craigslist can help you find writing groups. Also, strongly consider creating a blog of some kind. A public journal gives you a space somewhere between the private pen-and-paper version and fully public writing. (The fact my parents read mine acts as a decent filter on what I’ll make available to the general blogosphere.) My personal choice is LiveJournal, although most social networking sites have some kind of blogging feature.

6. Be a sculptor: know when to make clay, and when to shape it.

At its heart, the writing process embodies a poignant contradiction: stringing words together (writing), and cutting them away (editing). I’d bet that when it comes to writer’s block, the vast majority of cases are head-on collisions between the internal writer and editor. These struggles usually appear as paralysis—terror in the face of the blank/page or screen, or the piece of writing that stops in the middle of nowhere.

The metaphor that’s worked best for me in this regard is writing as sculpting. Before an artist can carve and shape and cut, he or she must first have a blob of clay (or granite, or whatever) with which to work. As a writer, you have to make your own clay—and a lot of it, so be prepared to spew out a tremendous amount of junk before you begin the serious trimming. (This is where writing every day, particularly journaling, will prove invaluable.)

This not to say, however, that writing is ever a nice, linear process (write, edit, rinse and repeat). You will constantly find yourself going back and forth between writing and editing. Just make sure your internal writer and editor play nice, and take turns with each other.

7. Read, read, read; then read some more.

Chances are, if you’re thinking of writing, you already are a voracious reader. Good. Keep that up, too. I’ve found that writing is a lot like breathing: one must breathe in just as much as one breathes out; take words in to let them back out.

Besides, there’s no better way to get a sense of various genres and styles, to see what works and what doesn’t, than to read what other people have put out there. To a lesser extent, this applies to movies as well. Without letting it take away from your enjoyment of the story, think to yourself—and journal, blog, and talk with friends afterward—about how the writer achieved certain effects, what you would have done differently, whether a certain aspect of the story had to be told that particular way, etc.

Just be aware: if reading is like inhaling, it might also be compared to eating. What you ingest is going to have a distinct effect on your writerly health, so take care that your reading diet is balanced and nutritious.

8. Stretch yourself, mentally and physically.

If you’re truly intent on being a writer, you must step out of your comfort zone fairly regularly. Writing is not easy; it’s not supposed to be easy. As with anything serious, while we do it for the joy and fulfillment it brings, while we play and cavort about with it, we also do it when it’s difficult, because we must. The novelist Mario Vargas Llosa compares the urge to write to living with a tapeworm, having a hunger you can never satisfy, a drive that won’t leave you alone.

And as Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Do the thing you think you cannot do.” If you see yourself as a poet, then make yourself write a story sometime. If you’re an essayist, write poetry, and so forth. Throw yourself out there and write things you’d be afraid to show to friends and family. And by all means, start collecting rejection slips from journals and publishing houses.

Be open to new experiences and spontaneous whims. Try foods you’ve never eaten; spend time in places you’ve never been; go on an all-night walk or drive; play on a playground; partake of some off-the-wall religious gathering. Step—no, leap—outside your comfort zone and broaden your horizons. You’ll be amazed what this can do for your writing.

At the same time, don’t get so into writing that you forget to attend to your physical needs as well. For better or worse, we writers depend on this machine known as the body, and if we are to write our best, we must feed, exercise, and rest it accordingly.

9. Engage in complementary activities.

You can do a great deal to feed your writer’s soul, and to draw inspiration closer, by engaging in certain activities which, on the surface, may seem to have nothing to do with writing. Visit museums, go to concerts, draw and sculpt. From my own experience, I offer the examples of making and listening to music, studying foreign languages, going for long walks and meditating. All of these are integral aspects of my lifestyle as a writer.

Another activity you might not associate with writing, but which invites the Muse out to play, is gaming—specifically, role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons. As Carolynn See puts it, “You pretended when you were little; why not now?” As silly as it may sound—and as silly as you may feel on your first few campaigns—I have found making up stories on the spot, in a group, in an exotic world full of curious characters to be invaluable experience in learning how to spin a tale.

Above all, make sure you have plenty of what Thoreau called “broad margins” in your life: empty times and spaces in which your mind is allowed to wander, where the ideas in and around your head can turn themselves over and compost themselves into something beautiful.

10. Practice the fine art of rule-breaking.

All right, well, I can’t put this off any longer. The rules. Blah, blah, blah, rules. “Show, don’t tell.” “Write what you know.” In one of the writing classes I took in grad school, people would ask “Where’s the ache in this story?” and comment that “I don’t think this story deserves this ending” (meaning, I presume, that it was a brilliant ending which the story had not adequately set up). Then there are the unwritten rules: for example, that stories should be coherent, have a clearly defined beginning, middle and end, clear characters and conflict. Finally, consider the previous nine ‘commandments’ in this article: write something every day, etc. What a bunch of hogwash, these rules!

Yet I must admit, rules have their place. Before you consciously choose to break any, you should (a) master them, and (b) make it worth the reader’s while that you’re tossing one or more of them aside. Shock and confusion may qualify as art with some writers, but alienating your readers isn’t likely to help your career. As with so much else in writing, this is a dance; as such, gracefulness matters.

11. The Missing Links

Speaking of breaking the rules, here’s an eleventh item for you: a short list of websites to guide your ongoing search for ideas and suggestions…

But enough of this! Stop reading already, and write—now! Figure out the commandments of writing for yourself, along the way, and don’t forget to enjoy the insane, life-affirming beauty of writing.



Filed under Writing

2 responses to “The Ten Commandments of Writing

  1. Small Girl Big World

    I am saving this for future reference when I need reminding. Great post! (Oh, except it’s Rainer Maria Rilke, not Ranier 😉 Sorry, picky German here…)

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