Thoughts on Heinlein’s 5 Rules For Writing



I was reading a post on another blog and it reminded me about Robert Heinlein’s 5 rules of writing.

In case you don’t know, the rules are:


1 – You must write

2 – Finish what you start

3 – You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order

4 – You must put your story on the market

5 – You must keep it on the market until it has sold

A lot of people quote these rules, and I’ve certainly heard them before.  I love Robert Heinlein, but his rules bother me.

Well, not the first rule.  That one’s pretty easy.  If you want to be a writer, you have to write.  Got it.

And, okay, not the second one.  You have to finish.  I’m on board with that one too.  It’s easy to drop something in the middle because it gets hard or you get discouraged.  You have to commit to finishing.

Then we have rule #3.  

As far as I can tell, the usual interpretation of this rule is that you should write one draft, polish it, and send it out.

Now, maybe Robert Heinlein could write a publishable first draft, but I sure can’t.  And neither, in my opinion, can many of the people who try to follow this rule.

Another post on a different blog suggested the rule was phrased this way because when Heinlein was writing, the publishing industry was different.  There were many more markets, especially short story markets.  Perhaps editors had more leeway to work with authors after purchase if they saw potential in a weak manuscript.

I don’t know what Mr. Heinlein really meant.  I don’t even know how many drafts he wrote of his own manuscripts (although based on Time Enough For Love, I can guess there weren’t many).  But for me, the finished story does not burst out of my head fully formed like Athena springing from the brow of Zeus.  I need to rewrite – several times – to get the thing in good enough shape that it doesn’t embarrass me.

So here is the Betsy interpretation of Heinlein’s 5 Rules For Writing:

1 – write

2 – finish it and don’t just stop in the middle.

3 – rewrite it until you’re pretty sure it’s finished, but don’t get ridiculous about the whole thing.

4 – send it out or self-publish it

5 – keep sending it out or keep letting it be for sale and don’t get discouraged.  But pay attention to what the people are saying, too.  If everyone who reads it tells you it sucks, you might want to take a second look.

Much better.

Now my question is…how do I know when it’s finished?

I guess that’s a problem for another post, right Bob?  🙂


Robert Heinlein


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