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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Rules for writing

by Philip Martin | August 18, 2020 at 3:00 a.m.

Dear Young Writer,

If you want to flatter someone, ask for their advice. You have asked for mine, and in doing so given me a pretext for self-aggrandization. But I don't think I can do better than Rainer Maria Rilke, who in his "Letters to a Young Poet" wrote:

"[A]sk yourself in the most silent hour of your night: Must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple 'I must,' then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse."

I don't know if I can tell you anything of value; my first thought is that there is no substitute for talent and we all will eventually fall short. A writer must write, and is someone for whom writing is much harder than it is for other people. Anyone who tells you different is trying to get you to sign up for their online screenwriting seminar.

Those seminars might help if your mind works that way--if it responds to writing prompts and workshops on the hero's journey. All I know is that I often start out a sentence with no idea how it's going to turn out. For me, the act of writing is a way of discovering what and how I think, what kind of story I want to tell.

I just Googled that last sentence to see if I could claim ownership of it, to make sure that it wasn't something that I had read or heard somewhere that had wormed its way into my head. Google says I'm in the clear. Which seems like a miracle, especially since the thought these words express is hardly novel.

I used to think everyone worked it out this way, that you could only know what you thought about something by pulling it out of the interior murk and testing it in the sunlight. But all of us have ideas we'd rather not examine, and some of us prefer not to think about most things most of the time. I used to think it was silly to call any piece of writing brave because it was, after all, just the product of making marks on paper.

I've amended my thinking on that, because it takes courage for some people to go where they go in their minds. Words are radioactive, and working with them changes you. At the very least, you learn to have a healthy respect for them, as you become acquainted with their specific gravities, unique shadows and potential to poison. Whoever said they'd never hurt you didn't know them very well.

Whoever that was would probably have agreed with ball coach Bobby Knight's assessment of writers: It's no big deal; most of us learn how to write in the second grade and then move on. By which I guess he means that reading and writing are fundamental skills, of considerable benefit in some lines of work, but nothing serious people ought to think too much about.

I disagree. I have worked out some rules; you can use them if you want.

  1. Writing is work. It is better than a lot of jobs, but it is only sometimes fun. It is not meant to be fun; it is meant to be long and arduous and sometimes lonely. Fewer dreams are murdered by a deficit of talent than by laziness.
  2. Words matter, and, as Flaubert knew, there are no synonyms. There is only the right one and 100 million wrong ones. You will not always find the right one--and sometimes practical matters will require you to call off the search--but you will always know you might have done better.
  3. Failing is important. If you are not failing regularly, nearly every time you attempt to write, you are doing something wrong.
  4. Writing is rhythm. It is alternating the long and short, the staccato and the lyrical. Every piece has its own key, which can change occasionally but only in ways that make sense. Writing is much like music in that some people--even some who write for a living or aspire to write for a living--are simply deaf to it. The ear is the chief organ. It commands and instructs. It is all you need, it damns you when you slide off-key, it reminds you of how far short you fall of the sound in your head.
  5. Respect your audience. You are not writing for people who read at a certain grade level, or to persuade, or to sell. You are writing to connect with smart people of good will, all of whom know more than you do about certain things and will know exactly when and how you are faking it. They will know when you are condescending, when you are being dishonest. You are writing for readers who cannot be fooled, so don't try to fool them.
  6. Respect the job. No assignment you take is beneath your station or unworthy of your best effort. When you dash something off for money, you are stealing. At the same time, try not to waste too much--if you're asked to give someone advice, maybe you can turn that advice into a column.

In this same vein, respect your editor. Some are better than others, some are great, and some are petty, but it is possible to learn from all of them.

  1. Respect yourself. If you produce hack work, you are a hack, no matter how talented you may be.
  2. Good work has to be its own reward. A certain kind of bad writing has always sold better than any sort of good writing, and there is no pure meritocracy. Awards and prizes do not guarantee quality. Be suspicious of popularity. If your goal is to be beloved, do charity work.
  3. Writers write. Lots of people like the idea of having written something or talking about what they're going to write. They join clubs and Facebook groups and spend a lot of time discussing how to raise their author status and reputation, how to get a literary agent or break into the lucrative Y.A. market. Most of those people aren't writers and will never be.
  4. A voice can be trained, but only after it is found. Maybe you can borrow someone else's instrument for a while, maybe you can try out all kinds of different modes, but eventually you need to have your own instrument. Finding that can be a life's work.

Finally, you're not a folksinger; feel free to treat any and all suggestions for improving your work with disdain. If you feel you're right, go ahead. You can only take this humility thing so far; at some point you've got to decide you're as good--better--than all those writers you grew up reading.

Don't be intimidated by ghosts or professors or well-meaning friends who write over-long answers to straightforward questions.

Good luck.




Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at


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