Riehl’s Aphorism on Rules of Writing–Three Foundational Rules tried in our test kitchen–& an example of revising

Janet Riehl with “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary”
Janet Riehl with her book “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary” (see sidebar)

This aphorism is something I said at a book evening at Left Bank Books in the Central West End, St. Louis…when the conversation turned to writing. The author of the evening urged me to write it down, so I did. (One of the foundational rules: write it down.)

What I was getting at is that we need to know the rules, take them into our work, not slavishly seek and follow them. In that way, we find a firm foundation. In that way, we find our unique, throbbing voice.

Below, you see an example of revision and simplification to strengthen the work.

So, foundational rules of writing, heard and tested are:

1) Listen to yourself talk and think.
2) Write down the good stuff.
3) Revise to pare and strengthen.

Here are three versions of my aphorism on rules, with the third version being my favorite, final, and most elegant pick. –JGR

“We purport an aspiration to create and follow rules, but rarely benefit from them.”


We say we want rules–but unless they are rules we’ve made and tested on our own, rules rarely help us.


Only our own rules will save us.

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