The Craft: Rules for Writing, Rule #1: Get Black on White

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

Well, here it is, my first rule for writing. (I will be posting new rules at the original post, “Rules for Writing.”). It’s, by far, the most important rule.

There’s good news and bad news about this rule. First the good news: it’s the simplest rule. The bad news is that it’s also the hardest rule to follow.

Before the reveal, I want to tell the story behind it. It’s apocryphal, as far as I can tell. I can’t remember where I first heard it, but I never forgot it. In a quick search on Wikiquote, I wasn’t able to track it to the man credited with it: Guy de Maupassant.

The story goes that there was a young French writer, back in the 1800s, who wanted to learn the secret of writing. He was especially intrigued by Maupassant’s short stories and felt they were the pinnacle of the craft of writing. So this young writer left his home in a  small village in the south of France and went all the way to Paris, to track down the famous writer and learn his secret.

Finally, one day the writer found Maupassant in a busy Parisian café. He made clear his need to become a famous writer and asked Maupassant how it was that he wrote such well-crafted stories. Not wanting to quickly and easily reveal such a secret, Maupassant asked the writer to come back the next week and that he would answer his question then. He promised to reveal the single most important rule he knew for writing great fiction. But he warned the young writer that he might not like the answer. The young writer wasn’t deterred, he had not come all the way to turn back now, he wanted to know the magic formula Maupassant used to construct such perfect stories.

So, the day came. Maupassant graciously met up with the young, unknown writer, ready to enlighten him. I imagine their talk going something like this:

YOUNG WRITER: So, what is it? What’s the secret to great writing, Guy?

MAUPASSANT: Well, I don’t think you’ll like the answer.

YOUNG WRITER: I don’t care. I want to know. I need to know.


YOUNG WRITER [eagerly]: Well?

MAUPASSANT: Get black on white.

YOUNG WRITER [incredulously]: What?

MAUPASSANT: Get black on white. Put pen to blank page. Write. Again and again. Don’t stop…Get black on white.

YOUNG WRITER [in an insulted tone]: That’s it!?

MAUPASSANT: I knew you wouldn’t like it.

YOUNG WRITER [outraged]: It’s infantile! Obvious!

MAUPASSANT: But it works. Just try it.

By  now, you’re probably feeling as cheated as I did when I heard the story. But you know what? Guy’s right.

Take Chekhov as an example. I’ve read his early stuff, his middle stuff, his late stuff. In all, he wrote 588 stories! 588! Do you think his stories improved as time went by? “Joy” is downright bad, “The Student” is  good and “The Steppe” is epic.

If you do nothing else, if you follow no other writing rule, get black on white day-after-day, month-after-month, year-after-year. It’s as hard, and as simple, as that. That is why it’s rule Number #1.

1. Get Black on White.

[I will continue the Writing rules in later posts categorized under “The Craft,” so  stay tuned.]

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