Sci-Fi Icon Robert Heinlein Lists 5 Essential Rules for Making a Living as a Writer


So you want to be a writer? Good, you’ll find plen­ty of advice from the best here at Open Cul­ture. Oh, you want to be a sci­ence fic­tion writer? The great Ursu­la K. Le Guin has offered read­ers a wealth of writ­ing advice, though she won’t tell us “how to sell a ship, but how to sail one.” But wait, you also want to know how to pub­lish, and make a liv­ing? For that, you’d bet­ter see Robert Hein­lein, one of the acknowl­edged mas­ters of the Gold­en Age of sci­ence fic­tion and a huge­ly pro­lif­ic author who pio­neered both pop­u­lar hard sci-fi and what he called “spec­u­la­tive fic­tion,” a more seri­ous, lit­er­ary form incor­po­rat­ing social and polit­i­cal themes.

In his 1947 essay “On the Writ­ing of Spec­u­la­tive Fic­tion,” Hein­lein refers to these “two types” of sci­ence fic­tion as “the gad­get sto­ry and the human inter­est sto­ry.” The lat­ter kind of sto­ry, writes Hein­lein “stands a bet­ter chance with the slicks than a gad­get sto­ry does” because it has wider appeal. This advice sounds rather util­i­tar­i­an, doesn’t it? What about pas­sion, inspi­ra­tion, the muse? Eh, you don’t have time for those things. If you want to be suc­cess­ful like Robert Hein­lein, you’ve got to write sto­ries, lots of ‘em, sto­ries peo­ple want to pub­lish and pay for, sto­ries peo­ple want to read.

Hein­lein spends the bulk of his essay advis­ing us on how to write such sto­ries, with a pro­vi­so, in an epi­gram from Rud­yard Kipling, that “there are nine-and-six­ty ways / Of con­struct­ing trib­al lays / And every sin­gle one of them is right.” After, how­ev­er, describ­ing in detail how he writes a “human inter­est” sci­ence fic­tion sto­ry, Hein­lein then gets down to busi­ness. He assumes that we can type, know the right for­mats or can learn them, and can spell, punc­tu­ate, and use gram­mar as our “wood-carpenter’s sharp tools.” These pre­req­ui­sites met, all we real­ly need to write spec­u­la­tive fic­tion are the five rules below:

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.

You might think Hein­lein has lapsed into the lan­guage of the real­tor, not the writer, but he is dead­ly seri­ous about these rules, which “are amaz­ing­ly hard to follow—which is why there are so few pro­fes­sion­al writ­ers and so many aspi­rants.” Any­one who has tried to write and pub­lish fic­tion knows this to be true. But what did Hein­lein mean in giv­ing us such an aus­tere list? For one thing, as he notes many times, there are per­haps as many ways to write sci-fi sto­ries as there are peo­ple to write them. What Hein­lein aims to give us are the keys to becom­ing pro­fes­sion­al writ­ers, not the­o­rists of writ­ing, lovers of writ­ing, dab­blers and dilet­tantes of writ­ing.

Award-win­ning sci­ence fic­tion writer Robert J. Sawyer has inter­pret­ed Heinlein’s rules with com­men­tary of his own, and added a sixth: “Start Work­ing on Some­thing Else.” Good advice. Hein­lein’s rule num­ber three, however—“the one that got Hein­lein in trou­ble with cre­ative-writ­ing teachers”—seems to con­tra­dict what most every oth­er writer will tell us. Sawyer sug­gests we take it to mean, “Don’t tin­ker end­less­ly with your sto­ry.” Writer Patri­cia C. Wrede agrees, but also sug­gests that “Hein­lein was of the school of thought that felt that ‘good enough’ was all that was nec­es­sary, ever.”

Like 19th cen­tu­ry writ­ers who churned out nov­els as seri­al­ized sto­ries for the papers and mag­a­zines, Hein­lein and his fel­low Gold­en Age writ­ers made their liv­ing sell­ing sto­ry after sto­ry to the “pulps” and the “slicks” (prefer­ably the slicks). One had to be pro­lif­ic, and being “’pro­lif­ic enough’ often involved not hav­ing time to pol­ish and revise much (if at all).” So rule num­ber three may or may not apply, depend­ing on our con­straints. The lit­er­ary mar­ket has changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly since 1947, but the rest of Heinlein’s rules still seem non­nego­tiable if we intend not only to write—speculative fic­tion or otherwise—but also to make a career doing so.

via Ken St. Andre

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Writ­ing Tips by Hen­ry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Mar­garet Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

Ray Brad­bury Gives 12 Pieces of Writ­ing Advice to Young Authors (2001)

Stephen King’s Top 20 Rules for Writ­ers

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Julie Biddle says:

    He also said (in one or more of his books) …

    Writ­ing is not nec­es­sar­i­ly some­thing to be ashamed of, but do it in pri­vate and wash your hands after­wards.

  • Hamilton Carter says:

    I think 3 was sim­ply to rein­force 2, and 1. Don’t get stuck in the end­less revise loop. Write every day, gen­er­ate mate­r­i­al, and com­plete the project. Now, if only that weren’t so hard to do day after day :)

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