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Two rules for writers

A professional writer addressed our high school writing club at our senior banquet in 1966. I will always remember his two rules for writers.

Rule 1: Write away

In brief, write a lot. Write small pieces, medium pieces, large pieces. Write on a variety subjects. Write formal pieces, informal pieces, funny pieces, serious pieces. If you get stuck writing one piece, write something else.

In general I don't believe in the concept of “talent”. What we call talent is a combination of an inclination to put in a lot of work at something, plus the follow-through of actually spending a lot of time at it.

This is especially true with writing. Nobody starts out being good at it. Only experience will improve your style.

Rule 2: Tell the paper, don't tell a human

The urge to write is like a pressure that builds up inside us. You witness a fascinating story or incident or have an idea and you want to tell others about it.

There are two ways to relieve this pressure. One is to write it down. The other is to tell your story to someone you know.

The problem with the latter approach is that it relieves the pressure. Telling stories to live human beings has certain benefits. For me, a lot of it is about the challenge of telling the story in such a way that holds the listener's attention. Another reward is that many people will respond with stories of their own, and I love a good story. But once you've told your story a few times, you deplete yourself of the motivation to write it down.

If you want to write, it's vital to tell your story to the paper first: write it down. Maybe it's not pretty, but that's why we rewrite and work with editors. The important thing is to get it written down. Then if you want to regale your friends with your story, you can give them a piece of paper, or a URL.


Those are the important points, but there are some other good rules I'd like to add while we're on the subject.

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See also: Shipman's collected essays
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John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 2011/04/14 02:22:31