This Modern Writer: 11 Inflexible Rules for Upstart Writers by Matthew Burnside

RULE: Don’t do a lot of other shit while writing

Because you wouldn’t eat a TV dinner while taking a dump would you?


(As I write this I’m watching The Seventh Seal. Antonius Block is losing to Death in a game of chess & I just want to scream at the screen: You can’t win against Death, you dick. It is cold in this room. I can’t remember where I left my camouflage Snuggie. I poured this cereal 10 seconds ago & now it’s already soggy. Wikipedia is open to Steve Buscemi & for the life of me I don’t remember how it got there, but I really admire that he refuses to get his teeth fixed. My Facebook status has 23 “likes” & somehow this isn’t nearly enough. Why does it smell like cat pee when I don’t even own a cat?)

RULE: Don’t write about writing

Because only assholes do this. Something incredibly tacky about romanticizing the lifestyle. Not just romanticizing, fetishizing. Look, don’t talk about the thing so much just do it. It’s not like you’re an astronaut or something. Now that would be impressive. Writing about writing is akin to talking about all the cool things you could build with Legos. Nobody cares about all the cool things you could build with Legos – they just want to SEE all the cool things you built with Legos.


(…so I decide to write something called 11 Inflexible Rules for Upstart Writers.)


RULE: Don’t try to outwrite everyone else. This isn’t a competition. Just try to outwrite yourself

Because really, that’s what Jesus would do if he were a writer, which he wouldn’t be. If anything, Satan is a writer. There is evil in the world because when he gets bored he likes to torture his characters, just like you & I.

(& when your friend tells you the good news about their chapbook getting picked up, at least pretend to be happy for them. It’s not their fault your shitty chapbook of poems about Ryan Gosling has been rejected 11 times now.)


RULE: Don’t get addicted to submitting your work just for the sake of submitting your work

Because then you start producing shit for the sake of producing shit. Yes, I know that validation high you get when your piece finds a home is infectious, but it’s not worth manufacturing unoriginal subpar work. You’ll look back on it & slap your forehead later. Don’t sell yourself out like that. In the immortal words of Public Enemy: Fuck the game if it ain’t sayin’ nothin’.


(Goddamnit, can’t you go five minutes without checking Submittable? Just because it’s “in-progress” doesn’t mean the editor is currently reading it. It means they opened it, went to make a sandwich, forgot they left the computer on & decided on a whim to go see that new movie with what’shisface & then fell asleep in their backyard. They’ll most likely reject it in six months.)


RULE: Don’t take rejection too hard

Because you’re going to get rejected. A lot. I know it feels personal but it shouldn’t. Even the big guys get rejected. Just consider this: people won’t ever see your 10,000 rejections, they’ll only see the handful of successes.


(As I write this I am receiving my third rejection today. & that’s what you get for not leaving Submittable alone.)


RULE: Don’t get an MFA

Because it’ll kill your creativity & piss on the ashes. Maybe. So the critics say. Or it may lift your craft into the sublime? Who knows.


(Ignore my bio.)


RULE: Don’t forget to read

Because if you actually believe you’re going to be the first writer in the history of writing who doesn’t really read all that much, then I’ll eat my kneecaps right here & now.


(This applies to you & all those litmags you send your writing, Matthew. Keep telling yourself you can’t afford $5 for a back issue.)


RULE: Don’t smile in your author photo

Because nobody likes a happyass writer. Your author photo should convey two things: (1) you’re very serious, & (2) you’re not a very good dresser. If you fail to meet either of these criteria, you might as well French kiss your career goodbye.


(Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:


RULE: Don’t wait for the inspiration fairy to come visit you in the night if you leave a pencil under your pillow

Because it won’t. Fairies have better things to do then come give you ideas. Inspiration isn’t given, it’s earned. It’s created, coaxed, coddled. It’s not lighting dynamite, it’s starting a fire with dry sticks. But if you’re not writing every day you might not stumble upon any sparks to work with.


(& if nothing comes, you can always write that article about writing.)


RULE: Don’t worry that the last thing you wrote may be the last good thing you’ll ever write

Because it’s not that good. Don’t flatter yourself. Or at least when you’re still writing 10 years from now & you look back on it, it’ll probably seem like weak sauce at the rate that writers develop. Trust that every writer out there is undergoing the same crises you are. We all feel the same initial fear in our gut gazing into the white abyss of a computer screen, thinking: what if nothing comes out this time? We’re all secretly worried we suck, all just holding on for dear life waiting for the day that we burn out & get a job at Kinko’s, where we’re actually much happier.

(But just in case:


RULE: There are no rules

Because this is perhaps the one career in which you’re encouraged – nay, expected – to break them anyway. The Zeppelin-sized ego of the writer is one in which there is a devil on each shoulder, both of them whispering: You’re the exception to the rule, buddy. Go on & do your thang.

(Of course there are rules. You break them at your own risk. All I know is this: when it comes to writing, the riskiest thing is not risking a thing at all.)

Matthew writes in a basement somewhere in Texas. Later this year he’ll be writing in a basement somewhere in Iowa, where he’ll be pursuing his MFA in fiction.

  • LOL yes to all of this. Especially the “Don’t write about writing,” section, the “There are no rules” section, and “shitty chapbooks about Ryan Gosling has been rejected 11 times.” Congrats on Iowa. 🙂

  • Jackie Cummins

    Heroic and inspirational. I give it two thumbs up.

  • Clarinda

    Matt, I love this. Keep swimming in those wordpools, merman. Sea you under!

  • LMAO, thanks Matt! You answered so many questions. I’ve been wondering why I continue to receive rejections. Now as soon as I talk myself into deleting that damn shortcut to Submittable the invites to publish will pour in, but first one more peek.

  • Coco

    Always good stuff to hear about people writing. We all need to write.

    May i say, do write about writing. Do it privately, or tell us. There is nothing not worth sharing.

    I want to know how it all happens,cos its interesting.

    And thats my thing, interesting. and maybe bad grammer and all that – and yes the Grammer Nazi and i are seeing each other, but he doesnt want us to go out in the pubic. Go figura!