10 Commandments of Writing

As part of the final project for a class I recently took, which focused on various aspects of the writing life, I was instructed to compile 10 commandments for writing well. Each student in the class made a list, and each one turned out different from the next, proving that there is no one ideal method for how to write. We took our cues from similar lists made by established writers, such as Elmore Leonard, Neil Gaiman, John Steinbeck, Joyce Carol Oates, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and Richard Bausch.

You can find a few of these lists online, perhaps at the websites of these authors. Reading and discussing the lists helped my class to understand that these are not hard and fast rules for writing. Some writers contradict each other; some tell you not to follow rules at all. These commandments are for the writer who made them.

So I want to preface my own list by saying that these commandments were written for me. They are things that I’ve learned over the years, which have helped me become a better writer, and which I try to adhere to. They won’t work for everyone. But maybe someone else will stumble across this list and find it useful. Maybe they’ll work for you, too.

Joanna Parypinski’s 10 Commandments of Writing

1. Forget that tired cliché, “show don’t tell.” It’s “show and tell.” Great fiction includes elements of both, and there are some things you really don’t need to show.

2. Speaking of clichés, forget that other one, too: “write what you know.” Write what you don’t know. I’m going to quote Richard Bausch again here, for he said it so elegantly: “Write to discover what you don’t know about what you thought you knew.”

3. Strive not for realism but for believability. However fantastical the tale, believable characters and emotions generate the strongest suspension of disbelief, and if these elements are believable, your reader will follow you anywhere. This is so important because we must remember that fiction is never reality.

4. One good noun/verb is worth ten good adjectives/adverbs. That’s not to say you should never use them, but use them sparingly. When they can be replaced or dismissed, do it.

5. Wherever possible, allow the characters to react in the way that feels most natural to them, without trying to direct the story to where you think it should go. If the characters are functioning, the story will go where it needs to go. Too much authorial navigation can seem contrived.

6. Forget the idea that there is a muse only using you as a conduit. You are the writer, and everything coming through your fingertips originated in your mind. This is your work. Don’t forget that. At the same time, try to disengage from yourself as much as possible and allow the story to take over.

7. A one-sentence description is almost always more powerful than a three-sentence description. Say what you want to say, but say it only once: the right way.

8. Make the reader feel something. Fear, hopelessness, hilarity, love, repugnance. If the reader feels nothing, no matter how literary or well-written the piece may be, then the story isn’t doing its job.

9. Revision is just as important as writing from scratch. Don’t burn yourself out on the first draft. Let it sit for a while and come back. But make sure you always come back. Don’t let it sit for too long, or it will die.

10. Just keep writing.

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