10 Favorite Writing Tips

My writing library

When searching the Internet for writing advice, you’ll come across a lot of the same information. These are the basics: avoid adverbs, use an active voice, utilize all five senses, etc. And while these are important tips (I don’t like to use the word “rules”), there is so much more out there.

Over the years, I’ve scribbled down voluminous notes about writing and I thought I’d share some of my favorites with you. Most of these I’ve borrowed from Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. I would highly recommend both books as they’ve taught me more about writing than any other source.

1. Don’t worry about “finding your voice.” Worry about saying things as clearly, precisely, and vividly as you can with language that is rich, flexible, and as varied as possible.

2. With sentences, complexity and decoration do not matter. Rather focus on intelligibility, grace, and the fact that the sentence should be the perfect vehicle for expressing what it aims to express.

3. Use the perfect detail. It should be at once surprising, unexpected, inventive, unpredictable but entirely plausible, serious but somehow playful; but never heavy-handed or pointedly symbolic.

4. A true description of nature should be brief and relevant. Avoid commonplaces (e.g. “the setting sun bathed the waves of the darkening sea”). Seize upon the little particulars, grouping them in such a way that when you close your eyes, you get the picture.

5. If a character’s gesture is not illuminating, leave it out. Is it merely passing time, making space, or telegraphing emotion? Or does it tell us something specific about the character/situation?

6. Dialogue should contain as much or even more subtext than it does text. It should not merely communicate information, but make an impression, achieve a goal, prevent the listener from noticing what we’re not saying, etc. One mark of badly written dialogue is that it’s only doing one thing.

7. Structure a short story like a joke. That is, a set-up followed by the punch line. Garrett Cook said this (paraphrased) and it’s helped more than anything in plotting short fiction.

8. “A new paragraph is a wonderful thing. It lets you quietly change the rhythm, and it can be like a flash of lightning that shows the same landscape from a different aspect.” – Isaac Babel

9. “Tell a dream, lose a reader.” – Henry James. Anyone who’s read a drawn-out dream sequence will get what James was saying. And while I sound like a hypocrite (having written two novellas about dreaming), I at least try to keep dreams short with every aspect relevant to the story.

10. The two most important things are observation and consciousness. Keep your eyes open, see clearly, think about what you see, and ask yourself what it means. The wider and deeper your observational range, the better, the more interestingly and truthfully you will write.

I hope this is useful to my fellow writers out there. And if it is, maybe share it with other writers in your life? I have dozens of pages of notes so let me know if you want a part two, or three … or ten.


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