Writers, Are You Breaking the Cardinal Rule?

From Writers in the Storm:

Ah, the euphoria of holding one’s own book. Nothing compares, does it? In that moment, the months (or years) of writing, revising, editing, polishing, and finally publishing are in the rearview mirror. All we know is the joy of seeing our hard work compressed into pages and fitted with a stunning cover.

We dream of happy readers, bestseller lists, and maybe even awards.

And we can have these things…if we haven’t broken
 the cardinal rule of publishing.

As someone who studies storytelling from all angles, I can spot quickly when the cardinal rule has been broken, and every time, it guts me. Each book starts with untapped potential, ripe with the imagination of its creator, ready to bring something new and fresh to readers. But this one rule, when it’s broken, limits a book’s potential, keeping it from being all it can be.

So, what is this cardinal rule that stands above all others?

Don’t Rush.

Stories take time to write, and even longer to refine, especially as we’re all developing writers. We each have strengths and weaknesses and are building our skills as we go. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know, and so may not be the best judge as to whether a story is ready to move forward.

And yet, I see writers rush toward publication, skipping some of the necessary steps to ensure their book is as strong as it can be. And unfortunately, it ends the same way – a book that wasn’t ready, and the author feeling disappointment and disillusionment when their novel fails to gain traction with readers.

Rushing Burns Bridges

With more books than people on the planet, readers have endless choice. So, the very best thing we can do is give them an amazing experience when they pick up our book, because when we do, they’ll be back for more. But if we rush and the quality isn’t there, readers notice. Not only is it unlikely they’ll stick with us as an author, but they may also leave poor reviews that dissuade others from taking a chance on our book, too.

Rushing also hurts if we’re on the hunt for an agent or publisher. If we submit something that’s clearly not ready, that’s the end of the road with that agent or editor. And what if they remember us and our rushed manuscript if we submit to them down the road…will they be less inclined to ask for sample pages?

Rushing Can Be Expensive

When we rush, we seek out editing before a story is ready for it, meaning costs go up as there’s more to fix. A reputable editor should let the writer know if the project is not ready before they get in too deep, but this is an ethical line that you can’t count on everyone to follow. And if a writer doesn’t carefully vet their editor, they might end up with someone who isn’t skilled enough to offer the level of help needed yet is happy to keep billing round after editing round.

Most of us must budget carefully when it comes to our writing, and editing costs that balloon can fill us with frustration and guilt and may cause us to question our choice of pursuing this path.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

11 thoughts on “Writers, Are You Breaking the Cardinal Rule?”

  1. >>> months (or years) of writing, revising, editing, polishing, and finally publishing … We dream of happy readers, bestseller lists, and maybe even awards.

    Yeah, whatev. I’ve got 60 or 70 works. So far this year, faithful and happy readers in Uzbekistan, of all places, have downloaded 53 copies of my various works. That is a mere beginning. How are you doing, OP?

  2. Agreed. Like King, I’m a stenographer for my characters, nothing more. It’s their story. I run through it with them, writing down what happens and what the characters say and do as a result. I’m surprised at every turn, and my voice and my story are authentic and original. I too have 70-some novels, 9 novellas and over 230 short stories.

  3. Let’s hope AI can deliver a list of all the rules for writers that have been issued over the years. It would be a great service to humanity.

  4. The flip side of readers having many choices is that, if you make them wait too long for your next book, then by the time you publish, they’ll have forgotten about you and moved on to something else. So, yes, you want to put out a quality product, but spending years refining it isn’t necessarily the best plan either.

  5. Correction: the cardinal rule of writing is the same as for all forms of storytelling: do not waste the audience’s time.

    So yes, by all means, don’t rush your story, because that means wasting your readers’ time by giving them poor-quality work. However, if you’re writing a series, spending years “polishing” each entry also wastes the readers’ time when you don’t actually finish. (Looking at you, Martin and Rothfuss.)

  6. Disclosure. I write software, not books. (I like reading ebooks.)

    I do my best to produce good work, but if I took months or years to “polish my output” I would be fired.

  7. I was reading a fascinating evopsych article the other day about how young women often give each other fashion tips that are actually more likely to make the recipient less attractive (“Ooh! You’d look so much better if you cut your hair short!”), perhaps as a subconscious, genetically driven means of handicapping the sexual competition. Same vibe here.

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