“You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.”

“Whoa, nellie.”

All apologies to Keith Jackson.

I almost blogged on Heinlein’s Rule #3 on Christmas Day, because I figured everyone would be in good cheer and keep their daggers hidden.

closeup photo of black hilt and brown sword
Photo by Susanne Jutzeler on Pexels.com

Right at the front. A couple of things:

  1. I recognize that of all of Heinlein’s Rules, this one is the only one that is not universally true. Do I think that if you rewrite your story once or twice or however many times you cannot succeed as commercial fiction writer? Of course not.
  2. This is my favorite, most liberating of all of the rules.

Okay. Have you put the daggers away? Great.

Robert Heinlein wrote his business rules for writers in the 1940s. Heinlein, of course, was a popular writer of science fiction. Harlan Ellison also was a popular writer.  He famously tacked on an adder to this rule that went something like this:

“And then only if you agree.”

Despite all of the claims to the contrary. I believe both men meant what they wrote.

Why is this my favorite rule?

There is probably something in the attitude of it. I like the big middle-finger to the whole “writing is re-writing” doctrine.  Outside of that I’ll give you three reasons:

  1. Remember how much I dislike spoilers and outlining?  How enjoyable do you think I find going back through a story to “polish” it?
  2. I find the mindset change of I’m going to write this thing right the first time. When I don’t give myself the out of a “shitty first draft”, I waste a lot less time. I also think the artist in me respects the work much, much more, and is less likely to shutdown on me.
  3. Voice is by far the most important element of fiction to me. I also believe it is the easiest to cultivate. All I really need to do is leave it alone. All of that “polishing” removes all the voice that make my prose uniquely mine.

So, I write without an outline (well I have a little bit of a reverse outline that I note as I go), one draft, and don’t rewrite before sending it to a reader. I don’t leave myself little notes on what to go back and fix. I fix it right away.  I don’t bracket things I need to go back and research. I get my butt up out of my writing chair, and go do the research I need right then and there (I write on an Alphasmart Neo with no internet connectivity).

Then, the beauty of this new world of publishing?  It is much easier to keep a stiff upper lip with Ellison’s adder.  If I don’t agree with either my first reader or my copy-editor, I can move on. In truth, I could do that in the traditional publishing world, too… if I’m willing to chance the “tough to work with label.”

*One bit of re-writing that could be claimed I do… I upload my files from the Neo to my word processor, and then turn spell check on and fix those before handing over to my reader.


If you’re interested in what all this rebellious Heinlein’s Rules following looks like, I’d love for you to read either of my books:

Everything is Broken.  First in the Fuzzy Koella Mystery series.

North Country Girl.  Fuzzy’s return.


6 thoughts on ““You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.”

  1. If you’re self-pubbing or if you’re in the tradpub world and have built up a solid reputation and backlog, I can see putting this advice into play, but I do think otherwise you’ve very very quickly get on the “hard to work with” list and sidelined by potential agents or editors.

    I think for most beginning writers this can be pretty bad advice, because who knows if most beginning writers can actually put together prose, characters, and a story arc that potential readers want to read. I know you can do these things Tony, which is why I think it’s useful advice for you just like it was for Heinlein and Ellison, but I think if a lot of developing writers go that route they’ll see the list of people that want to help them slowly wither.

    Self-pubbing can be great because it eliminates gatekeepers to your work, but if you’re not a good-enough writer and follow that advice, most people will just end moving on past your work and you’ll wonder why you can never build up an audience.

    Case in point, I think that would probably be very bad advice *for me*, but, like you’re aware, I’m the centrist that believes there’s no applicable list of rules that apply to any one writer. At best, the rules of Heinlein, Bradbury, King, etc are only distillations of what worked well for them. It seems like this advice is spot on for you, but I think you may be an edge case in this regard.


    1. Hey David,
      I think I was pretty clear, that this rule is the one that doesn’t have to apply. If you want to sell your work the others are universally applicable (unless I’m missing something). As for bad advice, we’re all different I guess. But I could easily make the same argument about how getting on the re-write wheel can kill even a beginning writer’s career. In my opinion, there is no better way to learn the craft of fiction writing than to tell stories. Lotsa them. It’s called practice, and retreading over the same story over and over again (like many writers do) without moving to the next story…pretty much assures no forward motion.

      I also think that a writer that does not believe Heinlein’s #3 can get some value out of it. They can think of it as cautionary rather than a hard rule… the pursuit of perfection can be a path to ruin.

      Congrats on the new job! I am unfortunately looking for work.


  2. Tony, you’re right, the re-write wheel is the opposite extreme and is fraught with its own peril. Yet another place for me to hold to ‘the via media’. 🙂

    Totally agreed about learning by telling stories and that many bad stories is a way better plan that reworking the same bad story over and over. Seeing it as a cautionary rule rather than a hard one is a good way to look at it.

    Sorry to hear you’re looking for work. I wish I knew more architects. If I hear of anything, I’ll ping you, but I mostly know people in IT and education.


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