Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Thursday 26 September 2013

Rules for Writing, Rules for Life

Casting my eye down my Twitter feed last evening, looking for inspiration for blogs that I’m going to have to produce with a certain amount of aplomb over the next few very busy days, I came across a tweet from @NickKyme, and I couldn’t help myself, I was off and running. It went precisely like this:

Odd piece of writing advice I've just recalled: 'never write anything in your pyjamas'. Anyone else ever hear that? Thoughts?

Well, my thoughts on the subject are many and various. 

My first thought was that I’ve worked with Nick and not only have I written for him in my pyjamas, but I’m pretty sure I’ve spoken to him on the phone in my pyjamas, too. Of course, I’d never admit that to him, because I’m a professional, but that doesn’t stop it being true.

My next thought was that I write my blog in my jammies every single day. Well, to be fair, sometimes I’m wearing a nightie, and sometimes nothing at all under my duvet, and sometimes I’m wearing an odd assortment of clothes that might include joggers, a t-shirt, socks and a cardi, depending on how cold it is or how sad I feel, but I am, nevertheless, still in bed.

The thing is, this tweet says writing advice when what we’re actually talking about are RULES!

Stuff and things tend to have rules. Life has rules, and so does school and work and most households. There are society’s rules and our parents’ rules. There are our bosses’ rules and even our partners’ rules. Then there are the rules we make up for ourselves, because we can, or because we need to in order to make it through the day, the week or our lives.

Writers aren’t any different from anyone else. In fact, we’re probably worse off than most other people. What we do is sort of ephemeral, but it also takes a long time to complete, say, a novel. Unlike a lot of people, we can’t finish a job in a few minutes or an hour or a day. We’re in it for the long haul, and if we didn’t have some discipline, or at the very least learn to impose some on ourselves, we’d never get to the end of a project.

Lots of people who go out to work for a living can spend time sort of doing nothing, because they’re salaried or they’re paid by the hour. I’ve worked jobs like that, and I know how much nothing gets done, because I’ve witnessed people doing it. On the other hand, in this job, if I don’t write, I don’t get paid. If I don’t deliver on time I don’t get paid. If I don’t deliver to length, I don’t get paid. If I don’t deliver to a standard, I don’t get paid.

If I don’t get paid, I don’t eat.

Back in June, when I hit my 400th blog, I wrote a list of ten things every writer should know, and that’s what I called it, “Ten Things Every Writer Should Know”. I was very careful not to call it “Ten Rules for Writers”, or even “Advice for Writers”. I even thought about calling it “Ten Things Every Writer Might Want to Know”, but thought it a little mealy mouthed. I was also very careful to say that every writer will give you ten different pieces of advice, and for every writer it’s easily possible to find another writer who will contradict that advice.

See how natty jammies can be?
I would never advise anyone to write in his or her pyjamas. I do it, but I’m not suggesting that it’s good practice. I like pyjamas. I wear them a lot, but I don’t feel undressed or even necessarily under-dressed in them. I’m happy to answer the door in them, bring in the milk and, on occasion, pop to the garage for a newspaper still wearing my pyjamas. They are simply alternative clothes as far as I’m concerned. I have been known to swap one pair of pyjamas for another after my bath instead of putting on street clothes, and I’ve got pyjamas that cost more than you might spend on a decent pair of jeans, because I know that I’ll wear them and they’ll give me pleasure.

Discipline is important, because without it deadlines won’t be met. Taking pleasure in the work is important, because sometimes a writer is going to be alone with the work for long hours at a time. Advice can be well  meant and might even be useful, but most of the best writers learn to take it or leave it. I might let you into a secret and tell you that the husband doesn't feel dressed for work unless he's wearing shoes, and it's true, but I somehow doubt that's the reason why he's so much more successful than I am.

Rules, if you absolutely must have them, absolutely must be self-imposed, and even then it’s worth remembering that rules are for bending, preferably to breaking point.

So, @NickKyme, I’ve heard your advice about not writing in my pyjamas, but my own experience tells me that, for me, it’s not just fine, it’s essential if I’m ever going to get anything done. If I was going to make a rule at all, it ought to be that I only write wearing pyjamas, but then I’d have to break it once in a while, at least when I slip into my winter nightie.


  1. I think as players in the ruins of a Protestant world, writers in the UK have a little guilt worm about not fitting into a strict hierarchy; so we grab at rules even when there are not any.

    As an example, as reader I saw a balanced thesis, as writer I saw that I needed to wear shoes to be more productive.

  2. Thanks for flagging this up for me, Nicola, a good read. I'm sure there's also writing advice/rules on what kind of receptacle one should use to drink one's writerly tea/coffee.