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Five Rules That Matter (in my opinion)

The two most popular rules that writing teachers hand out like candy are "Show, don't tell" and "Write what you know." Here's what I say: Throw those rules out the window, and follow these instead.

1. Don't think.

"You can't think a story," "The poem is smarter than the poet," etc. You may have heard wisdoms such as these before. Listen to them. The creative process is akin to dream: something magical happens in the act of writing. Unless you're revising, stop thinking and just write.

2. Don't self-censor.

Writers sometimes stop themselves while they're writing: "I can't write that." The "that" might be a family story. Or something violent or ugly or repulsive. Don't stop! You can always cut later, after you've had some distance. You decide what makes it into print in the end. But whatever you do, don't stop something from coming out. If you do, you'll never know which truth it might have led to.

3. Trust your gut.

To cultivate a writer's gut, you need to grow confident in the ways you construct fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. Consider writing in the dark until your true voice comes through. If you seek feedback too early and listen to what others say, then you may end up writing like someone else, or many "someones," instead of like yourself. Once you learn to trust your gut, it'll be easier to revise your work and decide whose feedback to heed.

4. Know the elements.

Study fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. Look closely at the elements in action: point of view, character, language, etc. Know the different ways that a story, poem, or essay can function. Read widely. Then, when it's time to revise your work, you'll be better able to see where it's breaking down or falling short. And by having read widely within your genre, you'll know that just about anything goes as long as you can make it go.

5. Sit down to write regularly.

Some writers can write when they feel like it, when the muse hits, and make progress. But most writers need a regular routine to get anywhere. Writing regularly is like watering a seed. Water helps the seed grow. An absence of water causes it to dry out. Make a contract with yourself: Write 300 words a day, or write for an hour a day, or whatever works for you.

The main thing is to set a goal and reach it, even on days when your muse seems to be hibernating. Once, at a reading, Aimee Bender was asked if she has a regular routine. She explained that she follows what she calls "the law." She sits at her desk for two hours every morning, whether or not she feels like writing. Somebody said, "Yeah, but how do you get yourself to sit down every day?" And Aimee Bender said, "It's just the law."

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