“I see but one rule: to be clear. If I am not clear, all my world crumbles to nothing.” – Stendhal
Good writing is an art, but it’s also a science. Here are a few tips and secrets I have gleaned over my years. Feel free to steal and use.
- “The secret of being a bore… is to tell everything.” -Voltaire
Many novice writers, especially those attempting to write fiction, spread the details on thick and don’t hold back. They describe exactly how every character looks, thinks, and feels to the point of exhaustion. And every interior and exterior is described in painstaking detail. And let’s not forget the overuse of adverbs. Enough. Detail is important, but add only enough to paint the picture, and be sparing with adjectives and adverbs. Let your reader do most of the work-it works better that way. Read some James Joyce for a good example of this. Even his lengthy descriptions are the soul of economy. Consider the following passage from his short story Eveline:
She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.
- Show and tell.
A very common piece of writing advice says “show, don’t tell.” But there is a time to do both. I recommend alternating between the two enough so that the action is real and engaging but doesn’t get bogged down in too much expression and detail. Sometimes you do just want to say “She was tired.” as Joyce does in the above-mentioned example. And other times you need to elaborate.
- The threat of death must always be present.
This applies more to fiction than nonfiction. Behind the happy exterior in all good fiction there must lie something under the surface, stealthy and dangerous, waiting to strike and get the action going. Call it the threat of death. The lack of this element is why I find young adult fiction, particularly romance, hard to read: there just isn’t enough dramatic tension for the story to be compelling. So your protagonist finally marries her boyfriend, whom she almost didn’t marry. Bully for her, but it’s not good fiction. Many a dime store novel is entertaining because it obeys this one rule, even if it flouts the rest.
- Always tell the truth.
All writing, fiction or nonfiction, goes off track when it tells lies. What do I mean here? Certainly, fiction is all about making up a story, but all good writing must contain truths. I don’t mean religious truths, but the statements made and the action of the characters must ring true. This is the hardest principle to explain, but it is perhaps the most essential. When you write, say what you are really thinking, and when you aren’t quite sure what you’re thinking, then say that. To become an adult in polite Western society you must learn how to lie. Writing is not about being polite. It’s about telling the truth. You once knew how to tell the truth but forgot when you grew up. Get in the habit of telling the truth now.
- Revise. And then revise again.
Revision alone won’t make you a great writer, but you won’t write well without revising. Hemingway famously said that “The first draft of anything is shit.” I’m not sure more needs to be said about this principle.
This is similar to principle number one but deals more with the paragraph and chapter level. Kill and cut anything that slows your writing down or adds more detail than necessary. “Kill your darlings,” Faulkner said. Quit crying and just do it.
- Let your words play with each other. Just be careful they don’t get hurt.
So you want to use a big word when a small one will do? Or you want to use the passive voice on purpose? Sometimes that’s the right thing to do. Break a few rules, but make sure you know the rules you’re breaking. Word play comes spontaneously the more you write. Let it happen; don’t force it. But make sure it serves the purpose of the entire piece. And when you get more advanced you can study the various rhetorical devices (like parallelism, tricolon, etc.). Read anything by Abraham Lincoln for a good example of this.
- Write an outline; don’t write an outline.
Some famous writers swear by writing an outline. Others write from within. Do whichever works for you, but stick to it.
- Master grammar and usage basics, and don’t forget to copyedit.
Sometimes, your submission to a publisher can get rejected just because you missed too many stupid errors. I strongly recommend learning grammar and usage basics as well as how to proof your own writing. Read the great essay “Will Spelling Count?” by Jack Connor to understand why paying attention to the little details will naturally make you a better writer. It’s magic.
- Write what interests you, not what’s popular.
If you tell us something truthful, chances are it will also sound original even if it’s not. If everyone else is writing fiction about vampires or fairy princesses or space aliens and you hate all of those, then write about something else. The same goes for popular nonfiction topics. Write what interests YOU, and there’s a chance someone else will find it interesting too. Again, principle #4 comes to mind. If you work like hell to tell the truth, something good might happen.
There you have it. The rest of all writing advice is just an expansion to any one of the principles listed. In fact, even these ten principles contain some overlap. But hey, I wanted to get to the magic number ten, so that’s what happens.
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