SFWRITER.COM > How to Write > On Writing: Heinlein's Rules
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1996 by Robert J. Sawyer. All
There are countless rules for writing success, but the most
famous ones, at least in the science-fiction field, are the
five coined by the late, great Robert A. Heinlein.
Heinlein used to say he had no qualms about giving away
these rules, even though they explained how you could become his
direct competitor, because he knew that almost no one would
follow their advice.
In my experience, that's true: if you start off with a
hundred people who say they want to be writers, you lose half of
the remaining total after each rule fully half the people who
hear each rule will fail to follow it.
I'm going to share Heinlein's five rules with you, plus add
a sixth of my own.
Rule One: You Must Write
It sounds ridiculously obvious, doesn't it? But it is a
very difficult rule to apply. You can't just talk about wanting
to be a writer. You can't simply take courses, or read up on the
process of writing, or daydream about someday getting around to
it. The only way to become a writer is to plant yourself
in front of your keyboard and go to work.
And don't you dare complain that you don't have the time
to write. Real writers buy the time, if they can't get it
any other way. Take Toronto's Terence M. Green, a high-school
English teacher. His third novel, Shadow of Ashland, just
came out from Tor. Terry takes every fifth year off from
teaching without pay so that he can write; most writers I know
have made similar sacrifices for their art.
(Out of our hundred original aspirant writers, half will
never get around to writing anything. That leaves us with
fifty . . .)
Rule Two: Finish What You Start
You cannot learn how to write without seeing a piece through
to its conclusion. Yes, the first few pages you churn out might
be weak, and you may be tempted to toss them out. Don't. Press
on until you're done. Once you have an overall draft, with a
beginning, middle, and end, you'll be surprised at how easy it is
to see what works and what doesn't. And you'll never master such
things as plot, suspense, or character growth unless you actually
construct an entire piece.
On a related point: if you belong to a writers' workshop,
don't let people critique your novel a chapter at a time. No one
can properly judge a book by a piece lifted out of it at random,
and you'll end up with all sorts of pointless advice: "This part
seems irrelevant." "Well, no, actually, it's very important a
hundred pages from now . . ."
(Of our fifty remaining potential writers, half will never
finish anything leaving just twenty-five still in the
running . . .)
Rule Three: You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to
This is the one that got Heinlein in trouble with
creative-writing teachers. Perhaps a more appropriate wording
would have been, "Don't tinker endlessly with your story." You
can spend forever modifying, revising, and polishing. There's an
old saying that stories are never finished, only abandoned
learn to abandon yours.
If you find your current revisions amount to restoring the
work to the way it was at an earlier stage, then it's time to
push the baby out of the nest.
And although many beginners don't believe it, Heinlein is
right: if your story is close to publishable, editors
will tell you what you have to do to make it salable.
Some small-press magazines do this at length, but you'll also
get advice from Analog, Asimov's, and
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
(Of our remaining twenty-five writers, twelve will fiddle
endlessly, and so are now out of the game. Twelve more will
finally declare a piece complete. The twenty-fifth writer, the
one who got chopped in half, is now desperately looking for his
legs . . .)
Rule Four: You Must Put Your Story on the Market
This is the hardest rule of all for beginners. You can't
simply declare yourself to be a professional writer. Rather,
it's a title that must be conferred upon you by those willing to
pay money for your words. Until you actually show your work to
an editor, you can live the fantasy that you're every bit as good
as Guy Gavriel Kay or William Gibson. But having to see if that
fantasy has any grounding in reality is a very hard thing for
most people to do.
I know one Canadian aspirant writer who managed to delay for
two years sending out his story because, he said, he didn't have
any American stamps for the self-addressed stamped envelope.
This, despite the fact that he'd known dozens of people who went
regularly to the States and could have gotten stamps for him, and
despite the fact that he could have driven across the border
himself and picked up stamps.
No, it wasn't stamps he was lacking it was backbone. He
was afraid to find out whether his prose was salable. Don't be a
coward: send your story out.
(Of our twelve writers left, half of them won't work up the
nerve to make a submission, leaving just six . . .)
Rule Five: You Must Keep it on the Market until it has
It's a fact: work gets rejected all the time. Almost
certainly your first submission will be rejected. Don't let that
stop you. I've currently got 142 rejection slips in my files;
every professional writer I know has stacks of them (the prolific
Canadian horror writer Edo van Belkom does a great talk at SF
conventions called "Thriving on Rejection" in which he reads
samples from the many he's acquired over the years).
If the rejection note contains advice you think is good,
revise the story and send it out again. If not, then simply turn
the story around: pop it in the mail, sending it to another
market. Keep at it. My own record for the maximum number
of submissions before selling a story is eighteen but the
story did eventually find a good home. (And within days, I'd
sold it again to a reprint-only anthology; getting a story in
print the first time opens up whole new markets.)
If your story is rejected, send it out that very same day
to another market.
(Still, of our six remaining writers, three will be so
discouraged by that first rejection that they'll give up writing
for good. But three more will keep at it . . .)
Rule Six: Start Working on Something Else
That's my own rule. I've seen too many beginning writers
labour for years over a single story or novel. As soon as you've
finished one piece, start on another. Don't wait for the first
story to come back from the editor you've submitted it to; get to
work on your next project. (And if you find you're experiencing
writer's block on your current project, begin writing something
new a real writer can always write something.) You
must produce a body of work to count yourself as a real working
Of our original hundred wannabe writers, only one or two
will follow all six rules. The question is: will you be
one of them? I hope so, because if you have at least a modicum
of talent and if you live by these six rules, you will
According to Maclean's: Canada's Weekly Newsmagazine,
"By any reckoning Robert J. Sawyer
is among the most successful Canadian authors ever." He has sold 23 novels
to major U.S. publishers and received 53 national and international awards
for his fiction, including the World Science Fiction Society's
Hugo Award and the
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's
Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year,
as well as the Crime Writers of Canada's
Arthur Ellis Award for
Best Short Story of the Year. The ABC TV series
was based on his novel of the same name.
Rob has taught creative writing at the
University of Toronto, Ryerson University, Humber College, and the
Banff Centre, and he's been writer-in-residence at the Toronto,
Richmond Hill, and Kitchener Public Libraries and at the
Canadian Light Source, Canada's national synchrotron. He's a
frequent keynote speaker at writers' conferences.
For more on Rob and his work, see his website at
sfwriter.com, which contains 800
documents and over one million words of material.
More Good Reading
"On Writing" column index
Letter to Beginning Writers
Manuscript format checklist
HOME • MENU • TOP
Copyright © 1995-2020 by Robert J. Sawyer.