Five Simple Business Rules for Writing



Moving now to the third rule.

Rule #3: You Must Refrain From Rewriting Unless to Editorial Order.

So this is the rule that gets all the attention here in the modern world, even though it is the first two rules that stop most want-to-be writers. And the fourth rule also stops writers who can finish something from becoming professional writers.

Everybody in this modern world looks for ways and reasons around this rule. That’s how ingrained the modern myth of rewriting is in our culture.

One good thing right off about this rule. If you don’t rewrite, just get it correct the first time through, you have more time to write new stories. And writers are always pressed for time.

Yet time seems to make no difference to writers having trouble with this rule.

Rule #3 is actually an offshoot of Rule #2 failure.

Rule #2 is that you must finish what you write. If you are rewriting, you are not finishing.

And this rule plays right smack into every beginning writer’s fear that what they wrote isn’t good enough.

(Personally, I’m not sure where the thinking comes from that if they couldn’t get it correct the first time, why looking at it and stirring the words around will make it better, but that is the myth.)

So there is a lot to this rule.

And people are always wondering what Heinlein really meant.

Well, he meant exactly what he wrote. You must refrain from rewriting unless to editorial order.


That simple.

So let me break the rule down into the three parts and try to show how some of these parts work and why they fit just fine in the modern world if you actually follow the rule as Heinlein intended.

Part One… You must refrain…

Part Two… Rewriting

Part Three… Unless to Editorial Order.


Part One of Rule #3… You Must Refrain…

Heinlein, at the time he wrote this, was talking to beginning writers about what they were hearing about writing. At the time, in 1947, university programs were booming because of the GI Bill and so many WWII vets going back to school.

English teachers by this point in time had bought completely into the articles published in the late 1800s about writing slow would make better literature.

And at the same time writers such as Hemingway were tired of all the new-writer questions as being stupid. Everyone knew Hemingway was a reporter who wrote one-draft fast articles and books. He had made that clear.

Yet he still kept getting the same questions, as all experienced writers get, from wave after wave of new writers. So he started making stuff up about how he wrote, making it so outlandish that he was sure that writers would just laugh and realize they were being made fun of.

Of course, new writers have no sense of humor, so generations of new writers wrote standing up and did thirty or forty drafts because Hemingway told them to. It was a joke, folks.

So when Heinlein wrote his article and gave his five business rules, he was in a way trying to tell the truth to young writers to fight the idiocy coming out of Hemingway’s jokes.

So the phrase “You must refrain…” means exactly that. Do not think about a second draft. Just flat don’t do them.

Get it right the first time through. Just refrain from what some writers were saying in jokes and English teachers were spreading around to get writers to slow down so they didn’t have to read as much.

Also, at the point Heinlein wrote this, the pulp magazines and digests were still going strong and building circulation again after the war. Writers wrote for 1 cent per word on typewriters. As one major pulp writer said when asked, “They don’t pay me to rewrite.”


Part Two of Rule #3… Rewriting…

What is rewriting? Wow, can’t tell you how often I get that question and writers want me to define it right down to how much they can and can’t touch.

Well, first let me tell you what rewriting is not. Got that??

Rewriting is not:

— Fixing errors.

— Fixing typos

— Fixing wrong details.

If you want to know how Heinlein and other major one-draft writers used to do it, simply find online some of their pages of manuscripts. I am sure the pages put online will be the most marked up, but that’s fine as well.

What those of us who started with typewriters knew was that you could fix mistakes on a page before mailing it. Up to ten mistakes before you had to retype the page. That’s why the manuscript format is double spaced, so there is room between lines to add in words or even a sentence.

Most of Heinlein’s manuscripts have a hand correction about every page of a detail fixed. At least the manuscripts I have seen.

I’ve also seen a lot of Harlan Ellison manuscripts. You know he wrote one draft on a typewriter in store windows and posted each page as he finished it. I was also his publisher for a time and his manuscripts are very clean, usually only one-or-two word corrections a page.

You get the story correct the first time, but you can fix typos, spelling, and wrong details.

That’s what Heinlein meant.

That’s what I mean.

It really is that simple.


Creative vs Critical Voice

Over the years I have spent a lot of time talking about the difference between writing in creative voice and writing in critical voice.

Critical voice is that voice in your head that says everything is shit. That your story is bad, that you must fix it.

That’s critical voice. Nothing good ever comes from critical voice. Critical voice wants to make your stuff same and safe and dull.

Creative voice is that surprising place where nifty stuff just springs forth.

Professional writers have learned to leave that creative voice alone and let it work. We do everything in our power to stay out of its way and then not change what it has produced (other than fixing typos and small details.)

— Rewriting comes from the thought, “I need to fix that before it goes out.”

That’s critical voice and it is almost always wrong. When you hear that, just fix the typos and mail the story or publish it and move on.

— Rewriting is also caused by sloppy first drafts. Somewhere over the last twenty or thirty years, a deadly saying has cropped up. “Get it down, then fix it.”

This makes writing from creative voice almost impossible.

Think of your creative voice as a two-year-old kid. If you tell that voice that it can do what it wants, but it won’t matter, parents (critical voice) will just make it better later, the kid won’t want to play at all.

But if you follow Heinlein’s 3rd rule and promise your creative voice you won’t touch what the creative voice comes up with, you will be amazed at how freeing that is and how original and unique work comes out.

The idea of sloppy writing is just such a waste of time.

Basically, when Heinlein said, “You must refrain from rewriting…” he was telling new writers to work to get it right the first time through.

Yeah, yeah, I know, that’s not what your English teacher told you.

That’s not the myth.

So keep doing many, many drafts, maybe as many as Hemingway told you to do, and remain an aspirant as Heinlein said.

Also remember, if you are rewriting things all the time, you are not finishing anything and Rule #2 has got you in its grips.


Part Three of Rule #3… Unless to Editorial Order.

This used to be such a forgotten part of this rule for decades. It was obvious.

If you mailed off your story or novel to a major editor and the editor asked for a rewrite to fix something to help the story fit their magazine or book line better, then you considered it.

You might do it, you might decline.

Harlan Ellison added to Heinlein’s rule… “And then only if you agree.”

All of that still applies.

But this new world has really confused things for this last little clause of rule #3.


First off, agents are not editors.


Yet beginning writers will rewrite and rewrite and rewrite for agents who can’t write a check or even have a clue what they are doing.

I’ll be honest, and I have talked about it number of times on my blog, this practice is the stupidest thing I have ever seen in publishing.


If you are trapped in such stupidity, here is my suggestion:


Withdraw the book and move on. Go back to your first original draft and trust your own writing and voice. Act like an artist instead of a doormat for heaven’s sake.


Second, some scam book doctors you pay are not editors.

If you pay someone, they are NOT AN EDITOR. They can’t write you a check. In fact, you are paying them so you can be scammed and your book ruined.

Unless this editor has published fifty or more novels, just STOP!!!

Withdraw the book, count the money spent as learning, and start trusting your own voice and writing. Again, act like an artist.

Again, the only exception to this is if the book-doctor/editor is a major published writer and knows what they are talking about.

But most writers go to “editors” who have published a couple how-to-write scam books.


Think, people, just think.


So what to do with Heinlein’s Rule #3?

Follow it.


Write the best story or book you can the first time through.

Fix typos and spelling mistakes.

Give the book to a trusted first reader, then fix the nits they find.

Then move on to rule #4.

Yup, that simple.

And really, really that hard in this world of rewriting myths.

As Heinlein said, these rules look simple and are almost impossible to follow.

Why are they impossible to follow? Because simply, you won’t let yourself follow them.

You are the only person stopping yourself.

And think about how much more fun you’ll have writing if you don’t rewrite.

And how much more time you’ll have to play with new stories.