Octavia Butler’s Nine Rules for Writing

Recently, I was checking the analytics on my YouTube Channel and noticed that a short video I posted over a year ago called Heinlein’s Five Rules for Writing was the most watched video on my channel.

So, I took the hint and for the next five week’s I am going to be covering the ‘writing rules’ of four famous authors: Octavia Butler, Natalie Goldberg, Kurt Vonnegut and Stephen King: who’s rules I have broken up into two parts.

In today’s blog, I am breaking down Octavia Butler’s Nine Rules for Writing. If you’re not super familiar with Octavia Butler or her work, here’s the highlights.

Octavia ButlerOctavia Butler was an African American Science Fiction writer whose 1979 novel, Kindred, cemented her position in the literary cannon. She was one of the first female authors, and one of the first African American authors, to break into the predominately white, male-dominated world of science fiction. She is most well known for her Parable Series, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talent. Unfortunately, Butler passed before she was able to finish the final novel in the trilogy, Parable of the Trickster.

Prior to becoming a full-time author, Butler worked a string of menial jobs where she would get up at 2 am and write until she had to go to work. Once she became a full-time author, she’d divide her days between writing and reading. Luckily for us, Butler kept a journal where she documented her life and feelings, yes, but also her writing process. Her journals and research notebook were donated to The Huntington Library two years after Butler’s death in 2006.

One of my favourite entries written before Butler became a full-time published author reads: “I shall be a bestselling writer. I will find the way to do this. So be it! See to it.”

As African-American woman in the 1970s, Butler had to overcome many obstacles in order to achieve that dream. It took create determination, discipline, and of course, good storytelling.

Butler’s nine rules for writers were published in an essay titled Furor Scibendi. As Butler describes in her own words, “Writing for publication may be both the easiest and the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Learning the rules — if they can be called rules — is the easy part.”

In this video, I will list Butler’s nine rule of writing followed by my own interpretation of each rule.


Rule #1: Read

As you can imagine, Butler was an avid reader. She pushed herself to read from a wide variety of materials including fiction and non-fiction.

She read bad books and good books, and books she wished to emulate. She even educated herself on the art, craft and business of writing by reading text in each of these fields.

If you want to be a writer, then you must first be a reader.

You do not have to like reading, but you should do it anyway.

If you are time poor or have a short attention, then audiobooks are your friend! You can listen to them when commuting, exercising, or while you complete mindless tasks like cooking or cleaning.

Rule#2: Take classes and go to writers’ workshops 

We all learnt how to read and write in primary school, but writing is called a craft for a reason. You may know how to kick a football or how to upload a video on YouTube, but that doesn’t make you a sports superstar or a tech genius.

Signing up for writing class and workshops is the best way to develop your skill as a writer as you will receive feedback on both the quality of your writing on a sentence level as well as what is working in your story and what is not.

It is vital that you get feedback from people outside of your family and friends.

You can still question the feedback given to you by strangers, but the critiques delivered in writing workshops are often more trustworthy because they aren’t tainted by obligation or affection.

Writing Wokrshops
Writing workshops are a great way to get feedback on your work and to develop your craft.

Rule #3: Write

Butler recommends that you write every day for as long as possible, and for a long time I agreed with this prescriptive advice.

But the truth is, there is no one way to write.

Some people work best when their hands are touching their story every single day and others work better by ‘binge writing.’

You have to write to be a writer, what that process looks like is totally up to you. 

If you’re an established writer, then chances are you know what works best for you. And at a guess, I’d say your two biggest hurdles would be 1) your own personal resistance and 2) the need to protect your writing time from other outside sources.

If you’re new or newish to writing, then I suggest you experiment with a wide variety of routines and methods. Mess around with different times of day, different genres, writing styles, different locations; write with an outline, write without an outline, write listening to music and in total silence. Figure out what you need in order to get order on the page and then make sure you get it.

Personally, and Butler agrees with me here, I recommend that you keep a journal.

Writing in a journal is a great way to reflect on your creative practise, to interrogate your work, to become an observer of your own life, thoughts, and feeling, and to respond to what you see happening in the world around you.

It’s a place for you to figure out what you really think, which is an invaluable thing to know if you want to write about politics, social justice issues, human relationships, desire, depression – whatever.

Rule #4: Revise your writing until it’s as good as you can make it

Okay, guys, your first draft is not your last draft.

You must revise your writing.

Fortunately, all that time spent reading, writing, and attending classes, and workshops will help you do this. Look for plot holes and consistency with your characters and point of view; proofread for typos; revise your work until it is as good as you can make it.

Now, Butler does not talk about beta readers in her rules, but I recommend that you reach out to other readers and writers whose opinions you trust and ask them to critique your work.

Once you’ve read through their feedback and applied whatever changes you agree with, give your manuscript a final once over, and if you are traditionally publishing, make sure your manuscript follows the publisher’s formatting guidelines.

Revising your manuscript
Your first draft is not your last draft. You must edit your writing.

Rule #5: Submit your work for publication 

If you want to traditionally publish your work, then Butler urges you to research the various markets that interest you.

Become familiar with the books or magazines of publishers that you want to sell your work too. Once you’ve decided on a publisher, the only thing left to do is submit.

Yes, submitting your work can be scary, but it’s important that you be brave and hit the send button anyway.

If your story is rejected, that’s okay, find another publisher and send it out again.

Continue this process until you get a ‘yes!’

Reject is a part of life as a writer, so it’s important that you a) get used to it and b) develop ways to cope with it.

Now, Butler doesn’t address self-publishing, specifically because she published her rules at a time when self-publishing was crazy expensive, not very common, and frankly, looked down on.

Fortunately, things have changed and Indie publishing is a totally viable and potentially lucrative option for many authors. Much like traditionally publishing, if you want to go the indie route then you must do your research.

Rule #6: Forget inspiration

Inspiration is fickle, habit is more dependable.

Developing a discipline around writing by committing to a certain number of hours, sessions, or words a week is what will carry you over the finish line long after inspiration has fallen out of the race.

You may not have made writing a habit yet, but there are so many tricks you can use to create habits that stick. One of my favourite writers on this topic is Gretchen Rubin.

Inspired to write
You have all the inspiration you need to write the novel of your heart. Inspiration is great, but habit is more dependable.

Rule #7: Forget talent

Talent is no good to you if you don’t first have the habit of writing. If you are a naturally talented writer great, but if you’re not don’t sweat it. Writing can be taught (insert obvious disclaimer). Good writing comes from learning the craft, practising with intent, and editing your work until it sings.

As Butler says, “Never let pride or laziness prevent you from learning, improving your work, and changing its direction when necessary.”

Rule #8: Don’t worry about imagination

One of the most common questions an author gets is, “where do you get your ideas?”

And of course, the answer is everywhere.

Books, writing, learning, and living a reflective life will keeps the flames of your creativity stoked. You have all the imagination you need to create stories that make people feel something, to see the world in a different way, to be entertained and educated.

Remember that writing is fun; play with your story, the words that you use, the storylines you create.

Nothing is too silly and if it is, you can always edit it later.

Rule #9: Persist

This is perhaps the most important rule as this character trait underlines every aspect of being a writer.

You must persist.

You must continue to develop your craft, ask hard questions of your work, read when you don’t feel like reading, write when you don’t feel like writing, ignore reject letters and continue on submitting anyway.

The only difference between an aspiring writer and a published one is persistence.


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