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4 universal rules of writing (to be published)

You all know I am a bit fan of lists and rules. So here are some of my own from years of working on books and placing books to be published. You may see this as a bit of a rant... probably true. But you know I love you all and just want you to end up with your BEST book.


Rule 1: Write with intent

So let me clarify something here... these Rules are for writers who want to get published. I have nothing against journaling and diary work. But I am talking to writers who want to end up with a book or a talk or a blog. That means you need to write with your end goal in mind. All pieces of writing need to have a view to be used in your book. I am not a personal fan of morning pages for serious writers. Morning pages are for therapeutic stuff. Write with intent and you end up with a book.

Intent also means you need to know WHAT you are writing.

Rule 2: Know Thy Genre

Now this may seem to contradict my next rule. But I am afraid that the most fundamental thing you need to understand about modern publishing is genre. If you don’t know WHAT you are writing, you are going to fail. It’s as simple as that.

It is like saying you are going to play tennis, but you don’t know the rules. Now this genre drum is a drum I have banged for decades. It is amazing how I will still get an entire manuscript that somehow managed to not fall into any clear genre. Problem. I am certain any publisher or agent would agree with me.

US writers tend to totally understand genre – in fact they invented it. Nobody likes the idea that reading is so segmented and tightly curated. But I consistently find writers I can’t place, don’t know their genre (and African writers fall deeply into this pit and end up in that no-mans land shelf called African Fiction).

When you read enough you start to unpack the conventions that genres have. You understand that certain books need certain things to work. You start to understand that a crime novel is a mystery and that readers of non-fiction are looking for information.

Rule 3: You have enough of the story inside you

OK so perhaps I am shooting myself in the foot here as I am a writing coach. But the truth is that storytelling is deeply innate in all of us. We know what a good story is somehow. Sure, it’s harder to write one than to read one.

I say this because so many writers get stuck on learning about how to write. They read lots of books, go on courses

There is a second aspect to this… and that is that you don’t really need to do a lot of research to write a book. Unless you are writing a non-fiction research piece or an academic piece. I find so many writers get stuck on this idea that you don’t know enough.

Actually storytelling is basic stuff.

  • In a novel you need a hero who goes on a journey.

  • In a memoir you need a hero (you) who goes on a journey

  • In a non-fiction you need a big idea or argument to make and then you need to unravel and prove it.

Rule 4: Writing is action not thought

This sounds simple but 'write' is a verb. It is an action word Thinking is not writing. Planning is not writing. Talking is not writing.

The only thing that is going to get you to the END of a book is a very physical process. It is your fingers tapping away at the keys, your bum on a chair and a book building on a screen.

I often engage in lots of discussions with writers around the concept of the book. We sit and brainstorm the concept and argument, or plot development. At some point I get frustrated and say….. listen this is a nice idea.. but just write it already.

That’s why one of myRules of Writing your First Draft on my mentorships is Talking is Not Writing

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