Pournelle, Orwell, and Heinlein on Writing and More

As readers of this blog may be aware, from time to time I dabble in the craft of fiction writing. I owe my blogging colleague KT Cat a hat tip for pointing me to this short article by science fiction author Jerry Pournelle on what it takes to become a writer. Because the original article was written in 1996, Dr. Pournelle spends a good bit of it discussing software tools to help beginning writers that are now obsolete and unavailable, or that have been incorporated into other more recent products. His general advice on the craft of writing still holds, however. For me, these are the money paragraphs:

The secret of becoming a writer is that you have to write. You have to write a lot. You also have to finish what you write, even though no one wants it yet. If you don’t learn to finish your work, no one will ever want to see it. The biggest mistake new writers make is carrying around copies of unfinished work to inflict on their friends.

I am sure it has been done with less, but you should be prepared to write and throw away a million words of finished material. By finished, I mean completed, done, ready to submit, and written as well as you know how at the time you wrote it. You may be ashamed of it later, but that’s another story.

I usually begin a project in a great transport of enthusiasm but become bored or disenchanted with it once I see that it will take more work and more words than I anticipated to tell the story properly and bring it to a conclusion. As a result, I have a large number of unfinished fiction projects lounging around my hard drive in various states of completion. I’m great at conceiving ideas for stories and not so great at executing and following through on them. I must finish, finish, finish!

Dr. Pournelle’s article includes this link to some admirably concise writing advice from George Orwell. Here are six questions every writer should ask, and six general rules to follow:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.  

Finally, a reader commenting on Pournelle’s original article includes this link to a speech by science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein at the U. S. Naval Academy in 1973. In his address, Heinlein, a Naval Academy graduate, offers his thoughts on writing in general, science fiction writing in particular, and, appropriate to his audience, reflections on the values of courage, honor, devotion to duty, and patriotism. His remarks were later published as a guest editorial in Analog magazine. I found Heinlein’s remarks on the patriotic virtues particularly appropriate, given that we have just finished celebrating Memorial Day.

Like Pournelle and Orwell, Heinlein offers a few simple rules for effective and profitable writing:

  1. First: You must write.
  2. Second: You must finish what you write.
  3. Third: You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
  4. Fourth: You must place it on the market.
  5. Fifth: You must keep it on the market until sold.

In explaining his third point, Heinlein makes a crucial distinction between ordinary, common sense editing and a wholesale, top-to-bottom rewriting that fundamentally changes the story:

The efficient way to write, as with any other work, is to do it right the first time!

I don’t mean that a manuscript should not be corrected and cut. Few writers are perfect in typing, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Most of us have to go back and correct such things, and — above all — strike out surplusage and fancy talk. The manuscript then needs to be retyped—for neatness; retyping is not rewriting. Rewriting means a new approach, a basic change in form.

Don’t do it!

Two other interesting points from Heinlein’s remarks jumped out at me. First was his estimate that at any given time, approximately half the literate adult population thinks about writing something for publication. A much smaller percentage, however, actually takes the time and trouble to write. A still smaller fraction dares to actually submit work for publication, and an even tinier minority tries to make a living by writing. In other words, writing is something that many of us dream of doing, but few of us have the courage and gumption to actively pursue.

Second (and this was interesting to me as a person with a disability) was Heinlein’s frank admission that he became a writer only because a chronic illness (pulmonary tuberculosis) ended his naval career in 1934, the depths of the Great Depression, when few jobs were available. He pointed out that he was only one of a long string of authors who had become writers only because illness or disability prevented them from pursuing more strenuous and physically demanding occupations. There has always been room for those with disabilities in the world of writing.


2 thoughts on “Pournelle, Orwell, and Heinlein on Writing and More

  1. Oooooh! There's about three people I know who need to see this. Unfortunately, I can't make them read it. Nice job. Glad you could get these important ideas from a variety of sources. I thank KT Cat as well!

  2. Thanks for the link! That Pournelle piece really had an impact on me. I've used a synopsis of it in conversations any number of times. The Heinlein bit was something new to me. I didn't know he came to writing that way.I look forward to your efforts.

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