April 12, 2014

Heinlein's Third Rule

In his essay "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction", Robert Heinlein listed five "practical, tested" rules that he recommended writers follow. The rules are:

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

I like those rules. They sound simple enough and easy for me to follow... except for rule #3. Every story I've published has been subject to rewriting. I've even been known to re-work parts of my manuscript more than ten, or even twenty, times! I can't help it. It's the perfectionist in me.

However, I also hate revising my manuscripts. So why should I keep doing something that I dislike? Well, I'm going to try to stop doing it. I just started working on a new novel. This time, I've told myself that I will follow ALL of Heinlein's rules, um, to some extent. For the third rule, I will allow myself one pass at revisions after the first draft to correct obvious problems. Then it's off for editorial feedback. Then, I will make another round of revisions and repeat the editorial cycle until my editor is satisfied. I won't make any more changes unless my editor asks for them.

Aside from disliking the editing process, the other reason why I'm willing to embrace Heinlein's third rule is that I finally feel ready to do so. I'm more comfortable with my writing now. With each successive book, I cringe less and less upon reading the first draft. All of these years of writing must be paying off, or I've become numb to my own incompetence. Either way, I don't think more rounds of revisions will help me anymore.

By editing less, I don't intend to produce an inferior book. On the contrary, Heinlein's advice is rooted in the belief that re-writing doesn't necessarily improve a book. Just because you re-work a chapter twenty times doesn't mean that the twentieth revision is better than the first. I should know. I've been there. If there is a problem with a story, I should be able to catch it on the second pass, or hopefully my editor will tell me so.

In the end, by following rule #3, I hope to still write a great book and save myself the headache of months of editing. It's a win-win!

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