The T-Shirt Rules of Writing

If you’re inspired by company posters on morale, team spirit, and productivity, you’ll love the T-shirt rules of writing.

by Hyphenman on Dec 07, 2012

I’m not sure what kind of writer needs to be reminded of the rules of writing by wearing them on a T-shirt. Or having them emblazoned on a coffee mug, thermos bottle, tote bag, kitchen apron, or mouse pad.

But that’s beside the point. Friends and family members of writers might very well think that any of those items would make a swell gift. And a writer could easily get stuck with one.

Before we go any further, however, let’s take a closer look at the rules. Here they are:
  1. Write crappy first drafts.
  2. Words Don’t Bleed. Cut Them.
  3. Write Now. Edit Later.
  4. There Are NO Mistakes, Only Creative Opportunities.
  5. Don’t Think. Just Write.
  6. Rules? There Are Rules?

That undoubtedly sounds like savvy advice, right?


Of all six rules – and even No. 6 has a serious side – only one makes sense and is worth following.

That would be Rule No. 2. But it’s worded so succinctly that its message could easily be misinterpreted. Cutting fluff, padding, meanderings, clichés, redundancies, boring passages, and pretentious words is indeed a good idea. But cutting for the sake of hitting a predetermined word count is not.

I have no idea who came up with these rules, but it doesn’t matter. You can find variations of them in every writing guide on the market.

So what’s wrong with them? Just about everything. Let’s dissect them, omitting only Rule No. 2.

Three of the rules – Numbers 1, 3, and 5 – are repetitive. “Crappy” first drafts, saving editing for later, and not thinking as you write are advising the same thing. Rule No. 5 says it best: “Don’t Think. Just Write.”

Follow that rule alone and you will automatically turn out “crappy” first drafts. And advising you not to think as you write is just another way of saying, “Don’t edit as you go.”

All three rules are based on the conventional wisdom about right-brain vs. left-brain thinking. One side is supposedly creative, and the other is analytical. To tell your story and get it on paper, the theory suggests, you want to tap into the creative half and ignore the other part.

Aside from being stupid and invalid – as if we can turn whole sections of our brain on and off at will – that theory is just plain wrongheaded.

Yes, you will have unleashed your imagination and committed your story to paper. But if you’ve written it in a free-flowing, acid-trip, stream-of-consciousness, helter-skelter fashion, you will have produced unadulterated and unusable crap.

“Editing” is not the appropriate word to describe your next step. Nor is “rewriting.” What awaits you is “starting over.”

Only this time you will be thinking because you’re now in “editing” mode.

So why not save yourself the grief?

Thinking as you write and editing as you go is not easy. But what aspect of writing is easy?

And there is a place for the acid-trip approach and a time to let your imagination roam free and wild. But it’s not on Page 1 of your manuscript. It’s in the outline stage. Or the idea stage. Or the note-taking stage. Or the synopsis stage.

That’s where you jot down any nonsensical notion that pops into your head. Sentence length doesn’t matter, but short is preferable to long. You want to map out your story in as concise a way as possible while still covering the major plot points. When you’re done, you can see if it holds together, if it makes sense, if it progresses logically. And then you can smooth it out and fine-tune it.

You’ve got to have a beginning, a middle and an end, to know, in other words, where your story is going.

Will that inhibit your creativity or restrain development of characters that you didn’t see at such an early stage? Absolutely not. The reason is that your notes or your outline or your synopsis are only a blueprint. They are a guide of where to begin and how to stay on track. They are not carved in stone.

In some respects, writing is like an athletic competition. You’ve got to train for it and prepare for it. If you come to the starting gate unprepared, you will lose. And lose big.

One last rule, No. 4, deserves a closer look. It states: “There Are NO Mistakes, Only Creative Opportunities.”

Poppycock. I’d hate to count them, but there are at least a hundred mistakes you can make, perhaps even a thousand. Many of them are fatal.

You can write yourself into a corner, for example. That means you’ve hit a dead end with no place to go. You can forget your place and instead of having the bank on the north side of the street beside the hardware store, it’s now on the south side beside the jewelry store. You can give your heroine black hair in one scene and brown hair in the next. And on and on.

Just because you see a rule on a T-shirt or in a book by a well-known author doesn’t mean you should follow it. In the case of the six “T-shirt rules,” heed them at your peril.

And if friends or family happen to buy you the T-shirt – or mug or apron or mouse pad – with “The Rules of Writing” listed on it, here’s my final piece of advice: Exchange it for this one.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jeff Kleinman January 21, 2013 at 3:23 am

This is an admirable post, but I always wonder about writers and all their navel-gazing. Why take the time to write these rules, and why take the time to disparage the rules? To me it feels like a distraction. If there is any rule that seems relevant and cogent to me, it’s this: “Write because you can’t NOT write, because you’re passionately engaged with your subject. All else is crap.” Then again, I make my living by turning down writers who do just that, so why listen to me?!


2 Hyphenman January 21, 2013 at 12:38 pm

Thanks, Jeff. Yes, we’re well aware of the stake you drive through our hearts, and we hate you for it. But we also can’t live without you and the vision you’ve given us when we were blind.

For those who may not know, Jeff is one of the top literary agents in the business, as non-traditional as he is unconventional. A lawyer as well as an agent, his keen eye and critical mind have channeled a whole series of books to the New York Times Best-Seller list.


3 Mitch Weiss January 23, 2013 at 2:52 pm

Excellent advice. I’m a journalist and author. (I’m currently working on my fourth book.) I would argue that outlining – whether it’s for a news story or a military narrative – is the most critical part of the writing process. It’s the foundation of every story – or book. Outlining is about developing characters. It’s where you map out your plot so that when you begin writing, you don’t become lost. It’s about sitting in a room by yourself for long hours, digging deep. A lot of people fall in love with the idea of being a writer. But the reality is it’s hard work.


4 Buddy Bolton April 1, 2013 at 10:42 pm

I love how your brain works, David!
You are very inspiring!


5 Hyphenman April 2, 2013 at 2:49 am

Thanks, Buddy. As a former stand-up comedian who has appeared on network TV, you certainly know the power, the benefits and the many uses of humor. The ability to make people laugh is one of the most inspiring gifts any of us could ever hope to have.


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