Heinlein’s Rule No. 3 You Must Refrain from Revising Except to Editorial Order

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I’d like to think that when Heinlein says “refrain from revising,” he’s not saying “refrain from ALL revising.” Either way, I think this is where I part ways, just a little, from his writing advice.

Again, I see where he’s coming from. Heinlein says, “You must write,” not “you must write the same thing over and over.” How I see this rule is his way of stressing that you must keep moving forward through story after story until thinking of new stories, framing them, and telling them, becomes second nature.

There is another aspect to his statement that rings true for me and it was something I learned when I was an art student. My mom, an artist and calligrapher and my first and best instructor, told me: “The most important thing to know, when you’re working on a piece, is when to lay the brush down and walk away from it.”

It’s so easy to get sucked into the world of whatever it is that you are working on, to get fussy and overwork it. When you’re working in pencil, charcoal or paint crossing that line can happen in an instant and it’s usually immediately obvious. The piece is ruined, and you get to throw it away and start over.

This can be a little more difficult to recognize when writing, especially on a computer where there is no paper to literally wear a hole in. Anyone who’s spent any time writing knows what I’m talking about here. I’ve personally worried more than one piece of writing down to a shiny and useless nubbin.

A short story, a chapter or even a scene; it’s easy to get stuck in a kind of holding pattern endlessly circling over it, making and unmaking little changes. It is such an inviting trap to fall into especially when the way forward is unclear. You can tell yourself that you are working on your story, when really you’re not.

That said, I believe revision is absolutely necessary. To me, it’s is such an essential part of the evolution of any story that I’m writing that it is difficult for me to identify specific rounds of revisions. The key, for me, is to stay focused on moving forward. I revise every day but set some limits. For example, I only allow myself to revise the previous day’s work before breaking new ground. No starting every day by polishing that the first scene one more time.

Some have said that writing is like driving at night. Your headlights can only show you a little piece of the road ahead but if you trust the road and your map, you’ll eventually arrive at your destination. Once there, you can look back over the ground you’ve covered and everything is much clearer. The places you need to rewrite, the set-ups you need to put in place or tweak, the character adjustments.

So, rewrite, just keep driving.

4 thoughts on “Heinlein’s Rule No. 3 You Must Refrain from Revising Except to Editorial Order”

  1. Interesting. I'm not sure if you've read it already, but Heinlein expanded a bit on his five rules in a speech he gave at Annapolis. Some choice bits:

    “I probably haven't convinced you that those five rules are all it takes. But they are the business rules of anyone who makes anything and offers it for sale. Take a cabinetmaker specializing in handmade furniture. He must make furniture and he must complete each piece he makes. He never tears up a chair he has finished because he has thought of a better design. No, he offers that chair for sale and uses the new design to build another–this is the “no rewriting” rule.

    Having finished a chair, he puts it on display and keeps it there until sold. At worst, he'll mark it down and put it in his bargain basement–and a writer does the same thing with a manuscript that fails to sell to high-pay markets; he puts his cheap-rate pen name on it and sends it to the endless low-pay markets… with no tears; words are worth whatever the market will pay– no more, no less.

    A beginner finds hard to believe that no-rewriting rule. A myth has grown up that a manuscript to be suitable for publication must be re-written at least once.

    Utterly false!
    Would you refry an egg? Tear down a freshly built wall? Destroy a new chair? Ridiculous!

    This silly practice of rewriting is based on the hidden assumption that you are smarter today than you were yesterday. But you are not. 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!

    A writer's sole capital is his time. You cannot afford to start writing until you know what you mean to say and how you mean to say it. If you fail in this, it is not paper you are wasting but your sharply limited and irreplaceable lifetime.”

    The whole article is available here:


    And, to trace out the whole trail, I found that from Jerry Pournelle's site, this page specifically:


    Anyway, I think it helps to hear Heinlein expand a bit on his own rules.


  2. Thanks Douglas!

    I loved hearing Heinlein flesh out his thoughts here. There is wisdom in what he says for sure. I still revise more than I think he would approve of. Much of my first drafts are a journey of discovery, even though I am most definitely NOT a seat of the pants writer. I outline and cogitate and brew a story for a while before I start drafting, but I also take my stories to a critique group and get feedback and often make changes before I send it out. What I focus on is maintaining forward motion.

    I like his metaphor that you wouldn't tear a chair apart to remake it in a new design. That really rings true to me. In my case it's more like my first draft is a chair with only three legs and the revision is about adding the fourth to make it a viable object that someone can sit on!


  3. Yes. I think just like a story has a beginning, middle, and an end so does the writing process. It's important to know when to say *I* am finished with this story.

    I've gotten comments from editors when they're rejecting one of my stories, suggesting I tweak this or recast that. So, point taken, but if you're rejecting it then I think I'll just send it somewhere else and continue working on my current story.


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