Five great bits of writing advice – and what they mean

Robert Anson Heinlein (1907-1988) was one of the the United States’ best fiction writers of his day, in any genre.

His books intrude obliquely into pop culture. Apart from coining the word ‘grok’, he described the modern waterbed to the point where it couldn’t be patented by Charles Hall. In fact Heinlein got the patent for it in 1980. And Stranger in a Strange Land became the bible for a generation of hippies.

Heinlein was an engineer by training, which gave his SF an authenticity shared by few other authors. The spacesuit he described in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel precisely described all the engineering issues that NASA still struggle with.  In 1941 he wrote a story describing atomic power plants so accurately the US government became alarmed about leaks from the real programme. Actually he’d worked it out from physics principles, just like Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard did for real. When supersonic maglev trains arrive – well, guess who thought of those first too. Heinlein also invented, to my knowledge as a throw-away line in Time For the Stars, the point that the exhaust from your matter-conversion stardrive (‘Torchship’) is a weapon which makes the Tsar Bomba look like a firework.  His dozen ‘juvenile SF’ novels of the 1950s defined what we now call ‘rocketpunk’ – the heroic, optimistic future envisaged in the innocent dawn of the atomic age, before ‘nuclear’ became evil and some of the more annoying practical realities of rocketry and spaceflight became evident.

Except that Heinlein was never innocent. These books were more than just SF. He tackled key ideological issues of the day. Heinlein’s last ‘juvenile’, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, was a brilliant take on contemporary 1950s youth culture, bug-eyed monster movies, and the US university system. It also taught me, at least, about how to calculate constant-acceleration orbital trajectories. Yup, you got maths and physics lessons while enjoying the story.

So. When polymaths like Heinlein say something – you listen. And Heinlein had this to say about writing:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

Those tips are valid for any writer, and they’re often discussed – here, for instance. Everybody has their own take on them. All these different views add to each other. So I thought I’d put my own thoughts into the mix and devote this post to discussing that advice as I see it.

1. You must write.
Obviously! You can’t have a story unless you write…can you? Dig deeper. What Heinlein was really saying is that aspiration is insufficient. I’m sometimes introduced to people who tell me they are a writer. Then it turns out they haven’t got around to ‘their book’ yet. So in fact they’re not. They just think of themselves as writers. At best they’re aspirants. They don’t know that there is a vast gulf between the imagining and the doing. To be a writer, as Heinlein tells us, you must actually write. And, as I always say, write every day. It’s easy to write words. Hard to be a good writer. The only way is by practising.

2. You must finish what you write.
Also sounds obvious – except, once again it reveals wisdom, How many people have one or two, or a dozen, half-finished novels cluttering their hard drive? I see it this way. I can’t overstate the importance of structure to writing, and it is only obvious in the finished work. If you don’t finish what you’re writing, you won’t learn about structure. Besides which, it’s good discipline to finish – and writers only work 5 percent of the time by inspiration. The rest of it is perspiration. Get used to it. Finishing a book forces you into disciplined writing habits. Trust me!

3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
A tricky one, this. Some people think Heinlein meant you shouldn’t revise at all. I disagree. I think it relates to (2). It’s too easy to keep tinkering and not finishing. Or worse, tinkering AFTER the piece has been accepted. Publishers are savvy to that – most of the contracts include editorial clauses. If you change too much after it’s entered their production process, You foot the bill. Good incentive to follow what, I suspect, Heinlein meant.

4. You must put the work on the market.
Publishing, in effect, validates the work. When done by a recognised publishing house it also means the work has, effectively, been reviewed by professionals and found OK. These days, with self e-publishing emerging, that’s less true. But the point about professional validation and editorial comment counts. How many aspiring authors bung their e-book out there on Amazon and discover it doesn’t sell? Why? Usually because editorial advice and a professional overview would have helped. Familiarity breeds contempt; writers seldom see their own clangers, hate seing their ‘baby’ destroyed – and even professional best-selling authors are their own worst critics, usually. Not a criticism of personality or skill, it’s the nature of the beast. A professional overview can do wonders.

5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.
Again, the way to get paid for it. There are so many anecdotes about Author X who ran through 60 agents, papered their wall with rejection slips, and gave up. But maybe the 61st attempt would have worked. That said, some work really isn’t saleable, but with a bit of luck a friendly agent or editor will say so along the way. Don’t take their advice as an attack. These people actually do want to help. And if you’re lucky, maybe somebody will point out how to make it saleable.

So there you are – my take, at least, on Heinlein’s advice. What’s yours? Any thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2011

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26 thoughts on “Five great bits of writing advice – and what they mean

    1. Makes me want to go read his books!

      2 and 3 were my bugbears. I used to want to be an author, but I gave it up after developing a perfectionist streak that resulted in me never getting past the first few paragraphs.

      I haven’t written any stories in years. However, I am in the middle of doing The Artist’s Way, which involves journaling every day. I’m not sure yet if I’ll get back into wanting to be an author again or whether I’ll focus on some other artistic endeavor, such as graphic design. Only time will tell.

      Anyway, one thing I’d like to say is something that’s helped me immensely is writing things down by hand first. I find it’s much too easy to get bogged down in editor mode when I try to compose something on the computer.

  1. Terrific post–solid writing advice and a great reminder about what a powerful impact Heinlein was on both pop culture and the literary landscape. And what a delicious collection of links! I had great fun meandering through the various sites you’ve linked to.I now know far more about the Chicago Pile-1 than I ever expected to. Thanks for a most entertaining read.

  2. J Michael Strazynski ( of Babylon 5 fame who, I believe, had Heinlein as a consultant for the show) always uses the quote “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” I think it’s best abandoned and not re-edited and the best example I can give for not going back to re-edit is Star Wars. How many people are truly disappointed their beloved Han Solo didn’t shoot first (anymore)?

    1. Hi, thanks for your thoughts. I gave up watching Star Wars movies in 1983 after “Revenge of the Jedi”. Teddy bears vs stormtroopers? Oh dear. But I thought the original was great stand-alone & certainly didn’t need tinkering with again…and again…and again… Yah, Heinlein was right…again…

  3. 2. You must finish what you write.
    Also sounds obvious – except, once again it reveals wisdom, How many people have one or two, or a dozen, half-finished novels cluttering their hard drive? I see it this way. I can’t overstate the importance of structure to writing, and it is only obvious in the finished work. If you don’t finish what you’re writing, you won’t learn about structure. Besides which, it’s good discipline to finish – and writers only work 5 percent of the time by inspiration. The rest of it is perspiration. Get used to it. Finishing a book forces you into disciplined writing habits. Trust me!

    This is exactly why I recommend doing NANOWRIMO, not only does it train you to write every day, it encourages you to be DONE by the end of the month. Deadlines are good.

  4. I love I love I love I love Heinlein. I discovered Stranger in a Strange Land about two years ago, and it has since become my single favourite novel, and I have since begun worshipping about everything Heinlein has ever done. He is just the greatest. Period.

  5. Funny, but a lot of writing advice I find on the internet forgets about points 4 & 5, yet they’re so important! Great to read a blog including them, as I often forget them too 🙂

  6. 1.I agree. I think one can be a writer without having finished a book as long as they are writing poems, short stories, and/or essays that could one day be compiled into one, but they must be writing something. I disagree that it must be done daily, although when I think about it, I write nearly every day, even if it’s only a few sentences or jotting down notes.
    2. This is true. While I can write and finish several short stories without a problem, I struggled to finish a novel I started. During last year’s NaNoWriMo I was forced to start from scratch and finish a draft in a month. While it needed revising and still needs some more, it was at least a draft, and the deadline was great motivation.
    3. I agree this probably isn’t about revising but about finishing. Occasionally it’s okay to tweak things after finishing, but it if gets accepted by a publication and they don’t ask for edits, then they liked it as it is and it’s likely their readers will as well. In cases where I believe in something but it hasn’t been sold I look at it again and occasionally change things. I had one poem that was rejected about half a dozen times. I changed the title and it was accepted very shortly after. I don’t know if that was what did it but I’m happier with the change and the fact it was published after it rather than before.
    4. Agreed.
    5.Yes and no. If it’s something that just isn’t salable or needs some changes to be such, then it’s wise to seek advice and change it before putting it back out there. But a lot of places it’s just a matter of the preferences of the editors selecting the work. I had a poem recently accepted that had about 15 previous rejections. Many of them were positive and indicated the poem had made it into their final round of considerations, but they were still rejections. It’s one of my favorite poems I’ve written, so I’m glad I stuck with finding it a home.

  7. I think you’ve interpreted his ideas correctly. What’s most difficult about 4 and 5 is finding the time both to build a following and continue writing. I finally decided not to let twitter post to my email except for DM’s because I can’t keep up with my inbox. Now that twitter added the activity column I can catch up from there and maybe now I’ll actually submit some queries. You can’t beat trad pub like Scholastic for reach into schools. Hope you’ll take the time to read my platform post (an easy platform building mnemonic) and read the links in my ECW tab to find the most effective social media marketing tools and examples. One writer shows which ones doubled her sales. My blog link is under my twitter profile.

  8. It’s certainly difficult to balance social media vs writing vs other marketing vs real life – a challenge I think all writers have to meet somewhere. And it’s getting so that social media is an essential part of the mix. Where the balance point is, I don’t know. I think it varies, and it will also be different for different people.

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