Principles for writers

In a recent episode of her podcast, Hurry Slowly, Jocelyn K. Glei examines the difference between rules and principles. She sees rules as “a narrowly circumscribed set of actions for how you can accomplish a certain thing,” whereas “principles are broadly defined values or ideas that you believe in that govern your behaviour and actions.” She regards rules as “externally motivated” and principles as “internally motivated.”

Using the example of exercise, Glei shows how the rules can quickly break down when faced with change. If you commit to going to the gym a certain number of times per week in order to lose a set amount of weight—establishing a rule for yourself—and then life intervenes (illness, injury, work), have you broken the rule and thus failed your exercise goal? A guiding conviction to move more in order to “be in your body” and feel healthier would be more of a principle. So what if you don’t make it to the gym? Go for a walk instead, or dance in your kitchen.

I really like Glei’s idea, as it feels less stressful and easier to adhere to principles. But I disagree that rules are “externally motivated,” for when I set a rule it feels like it’s coming from my very core and fires me up…before burning me out. When I’m trying to finish a project or work through a problem, I drop into rule-setting mode. I must be up at 5 am to work. I cannot buy a latte until I pay off my debt. But rules present only an illusion of control, they feel too constraining, and they really do collapse when circumstances change—say, I’m experiencing insomnia and need the extra sleep, or my mom is in town and we’re going out for coffee. Plus, I spend my days resisting rules, so it seems illogical to invite them into my life in order to “improve” it.

I’m curious about applying this idea of rules vs. principles to writing and the creative process.

I’m constantly coming across “rules for writers,” everything from articles to books to lectures and workshops. I admit to liking some of these (art critic Jerry Saltz’z 33 Rules for Artists is a classic) but I think the most effective of them are principles rather than true rules. Saltz, for example, is not necessarily saying you need to sit in your chair every day at 5 am and work. He’s saying that you need to work, period. Discovering the principle about why you do that work can then guide your process and output.

Consider your own writing. What rules have you set for yourself? Are they working? Why are they hard to stick to? How can you use an approach that is more rooted in principles? For example, I write to feel more like myself, or I write because I am committed to communication. You can set a principle that can guide your process and output, like I will write 500 words per day, but then leave the “how” a little more free-flowing—maybe you write 250 words on your commute to work and the other 250 on your way home, or you hammer out 500 words just before bed. If you have a guiding principle, you can weather any change or disruption that comes along, adapting as needed.

As I often say to writers, you need to dwell in the realm of the possible. Writing needs to feel achievable or you will never do it. Glei’s approach is one way of increasing the likelihood that you’ll actually get your writing done.

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