5. "Keep a journal." Nag, nag, nag. That's what a journal does to me. I start out with the best of intentions but within days, the thing becomes a millstone around my neck. In my experience, non-writers fare better in this area, perhaps because they don't feel any pressure to go back and edit. It's fine to do one of Anne Lamott's "shitty first drafts" for a novel but it's hard to stay loose when it's your life on those pages. No, you don't have to forego having a written history. You just have to get creative about it. "Write letters and keep copies." I was pleasantly surprised to find that saved email messages yield a lively chronicle of my life in my most natural voice. This works for snail mail letters as well (duplicate just before sending).
6. "Write tight." Tell that to Faulkner or Michener or Austen or anyone else whose lyrical prose knocks your socks off. Better advice is "Write lean." The difference? Tight writing, as its name implies, is cramped, malnourished and impoverished. In the name of brevity, it skimps. Lean writing makes every word count but may include muscular description, vibrant word choices, and vivid sensory details that unleash, nourish, and enrich. Rightly used, such passages can add splendor and magnificence.
7. "Be original." Shakespeare, Jane Smiley, John Gardner, John Updike, in fact, most of the greats broke this rule with a vengeance. Christopher Leland, paraphrasing T.S. Eliot, said, "Good writers borrow. Great writers steal." Whether your source is Greek mythology, Romantic literature, the Bible, or the nightly news, you still have to take the source work and "Make the story your own." But don't you have to do that with the ones you make up out of whole cloth as well?
8. "Don't share works in progress." While you shouldn't go around shoving manuscript pages in the face of anyone who slows to a walk, neither should you toil in obscurity for months without some kind of feedback. Think of it as prenatal care for your gestating project. "Share works in progress carefully" so problems can be detected (and corrected) in the formative stage. Choose someone who is both kind and competent and make sure you reciprocate directly or by giving input to someone else.
9. "Don't play games." Computer games have their place in a writer's life. Really. Most of us know they can serve as typing calisthenics and tension breakers, but if you choose well, games can actually enhance your skills. I learned from Freecell to look for creative (often hidden) solutions and, just as important, to cut loose a game that is going nowhere. Guess what? I started to apply the same principles to editing and it felt gooood! Obviously, you can overdo but it is possible to "Use games to your advantage."
10. "Follow the rules." Go ahead, if they work for you. But if they depress you and make you feel guilty and inadequate, try a new approach. "Color outside the lines." Have fun. And while you're at it, dash off something brilliant.