Writing advice?

I’ve been meaning for awhile to start a thread for people to share their writing advice. I’m finally doing it because next week at my job, I’m supposed to teach the kids writing. While I apparently have some idea of what I’m doing as a writer since all of you read my blog, I’m not always very conscious of what I do when I write. But here’s a few pieces of advice I’ve found useful.

Possibly the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever seen is Stephen King’s, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” That will be the first thing I tell my students on Monday, and I know it’s the main reason I write as well as I do (however well you think that is.)

I also plan on teaching them not to make paragraphs and sentences too long, and maybe even (getting edgy here!) that they can begin sentences with “and” and “but” to avoid overly-long sentences using those words.

But this thread isn’t just about them, I do want to discuss advice that could benefit all us native speakers (and my Korean co-workers, who need a different kind of writing advice than my kids). To that end, let me recommend George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” and Luke Muehlhauser’s “Rhetoric for the Good.”

What other really good writing advice have you gotten?

 

  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    Write fast, write crappy … and then edit it into something readable.

    voices.yahoo.com/how-write-400-words-1500-words-3720026.html

    Teach them to EDIT after they have written. Not just spell check, but to cut the irrelevant stuff, organize the ideas for best impact, and make sure all the words mean what they think they mean.

    For non-English natives, emphasize the amazingly strong SVO tendency of English.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Word_order

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Making sure words mean what you think they mean is EXCELLENT advice. It’s part of Orwell’s advice, but putting it that way is a lot better for non-native speakers than trying to get them to understand Orwell.

      And while I know you’re supposed to revise, revise, revise what you write, I’m not actually big on that myself. When I blog, I can organize as I write.

      I find it more necessary the longer the thing I’m writing is, though. Writing 60,000 words of book is NOT like writing 60 thousand-word blog posts, because a book requires MUCH more careful organization. Or at least that’s how I treat it.

      • Tsu Dho Nimh

        And while I know you’re supposed to revise, revise, revise what you write, I’m not actually big on that myself.

        I usually teach 3-pass editing:
        1 – Delete all the irrelevant information.
        2 – Organize the info flow and delete any redundancies that uncovers.
        3 – Fix the grammar and structure problems that all that hacking and moving caused.

        And last step: read it out loud to make sure it’s easy reading, has flow and cadence. (this makes many errors pop out)

        When I blog, I can organize as I write.

        I can too, for the short things that are in my area of expertise. But how long have we been writing papers, blog posts and the like? It gets easier with practice. So another bit of advice would be “read a lot” and “write a lot”.

  • pneumo

    My writing tip is to always write “south korean” when that is what you mean.

    • db

      Mine is that one says either “[someone does something] awhile” or “[someone does something] for a while” but never “[someone does something] for awhile”. ;)

      I, too, find that writing a load of junk and then pruning it to the minority of good bits is considerably more productive than sitting trying to get everything perfect first time, which usually doesn’t produce much. Not that I’m all that great at editing to brevity…!

  • Curious Chloride

    I would recommend making an outline before you start writing – the longer the piece of writing, the more detailed the outline. This allows you to plan out the article/book/blog post, and helps organize the thoughts in a logical order and ensure the whole piece is balanced. The outline can than easily become the chapter/section/subsection headings (if that’s the style of document).

    I find this becomes more useful the larger the writing project – for small things you probably had a kind of outline in your head as you write, but if you’re writing a book, that probably would need a bit more planning. But even for shorter articles an outline could be a good place to start, especially for someone that has trouble just “getting into it”.

  • Daniel Schealler

    Best piece of fictional writing I ever did came about because the completed first draft (which was ‘meh’ – okay but not good) was corrupted when I saved it. I lost three day’s worth of work, and was demotivated enough not to try again for a few days.

    When I did try again and redid the chapter from scratch, IT CAME OUT REALLY FREAKING GOOD!

    Like, really, really good. A cut above anything else I’d ever done at the time.

    The moral of the story for me was that if something’s just not working, don’t be afraid to put it to the side, think on it, and then start over after you’ve had time for your hindbrain to mull it over properly.

    Similarly, the assignments that I occasionally redid from scratch because I wasn’t happy with the first version were always heaps better than the originals.

    I’m reminded of this quote by Chuck Jones. He was talking about art, but I think it applies well to writing as well: “All of
    you here have one hundred thousand bad drawings in you. The sooner you get rid of them, the better it will be for everyone.”

    You can’t always throw out everything and start over because that way you’ll never get anything done. But when something’s really not working, you know. That’s the time to sit on it and come back after a few days.

    My 2c.

  • Alexander Johannesen

    Daniel brushes up against something I’d recommend;

    “Kill your pets!”

    Well, obviously, not literary, nor do I mean the fluffy/hairy/alive kind. No, write lots of stuff, and don’t be afraid to ignore or delete stuff, even if you like it. Let your brain simmer on the ideas and concepts, and rewrite it later. Always engage your brain; it’s doing lots of stuff you’re not aware of, it will simmer away on ideas and styles, and when you come back to it later there’s a good chance it will be better than your original writing.

    Also, don’t listen to the “write what you know” crowd; my own best writing happens when I write about stuff I know nothing about, but have to pretend I know a lot about through rigorous research, rewriting and rephrasing. The unknown of the topic will keep you away from cliches, the research will teach you something new, and the combination will probably make you a better writer through new paths opening up. Don’t be afraid to write on a topic you don’t know much about, or in a genre you haven’t done before, or views from characters very different from you; this is where new and exciting ideas come from.

    Summarize your concept in a sentence or two. Then turn those sentences into many little keywords, and write what you want to write under each keyword, and at the end simply remove the keywords. If fiction, write your story in less than a page, turn that page into lots of keywords, and flesh out those, and at the end delete the keywords (or make them into chapter headings). It’s a good way of structured writing that avoids a lot of fluff and irrelevance.

    Oh. And when writing about science, pretend to be Carl Sagan. :)

  • gc

    One book: “Writing Well”, William Zinnser.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Zinsser

    Author James J. Kilpatrick, in his book The Writer’s Art says that if he were limited to just one book on how to write, it would be William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. He adds, “Zinsser’s sound theory is that ‘writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it.’”

    (I really enjoyed his book “Writing to Learn”)

  • cory

    The linguists at Language Log hate Orwell’s essay. Here’s a sampling:

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=992
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=551
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003414.html
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003366.html

    They include some of the world’s experts on English grammar and syntax, so I’d take them seriously. They point out, for instance, that despite his insistence on the evils of the passive voice, he used it more often than his contemporaries. They also hate Strunk and White, which will almost certainly be recommended here.

    Instead they recommend the following:
    Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams
    Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage

    Williams’ book is now out in two editions (with a posthumous co-author, the textbook Lessons in and the more general Basics of; I don’t really know all the details.) Now I haven’t actually read these, but again, these are pretty much the world’s experts, and are excellent writers themselves.

  • MikeN

    Also be careful of the “it’s okay to start sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’” if the students you’re teaching have to write for an exam.

    If South Korea is anything like Taiwan, the people marking the exam (or setting the guidelines for the markers) tend to be very conservative prescriptionists who will insist that everything be in line with what they learned forty years ago from grammar books that were fifty years old then.

    Sample sentence taught in junior high school ESL: “How good a book that is.”

    • Daniel Schealler

      *shudders*

      With that, how do they up with put? :P

  • http://starisland.co.uk Sheila Crosby

    I mostly write fiction, which is a little different from non-fiction. Some of these suggestions won’t apply.

    Write the first draft quickly if possible. Then reorganise the material if necessary. Finally polish the style. If you agonise over which words to use in your opening sentence, you may never finish, and you might cut those words out later.

    Try to avoid adverbs – it’s better to use a strong verb in the first place. “Dashed” or “sprinted” usually works better than “ran quickly.” (This is a lot to ask if you’re not writing in your native language.)

    Be careful with similes. Readers will consciously notice the content of the thing-you’re-comparing-to, but they will unconsciously notice all the connotations as well. For example, mushrooms and maggots are very similar shades of white. If I write “the bread was as white as a mushroom,” you might fancy eating it. If I write “the bread was as white as a maggot,” you most certainly won’t. In fiction, you can use this to create atmosphere. Stephen King is a genius at creepy similes.

    The passive voice is boring. Sometimes you can’t avoid it, but the readers will lose interest if the passive voice is used by you for long stretches.

    Spell checker is necessary, but not sufficient. Use it, especially if you’re British and writing in American English or vice verse. But be aware that it won’t catch things like “Brain pushed a steak through the vampires hart.”

    If at all possible, have a break between drafts. If you re-read immediately after you write, to tend to see what you meant to write, rather than what you actually wrote. It’s amazing how many mistakes jump out if you wait 24 hours, and a week is better. Yes, that means you have to write your first draft good and early.

    Try to read your final draft aloud. If you stumble reading it, others will stumble too.

    Of course for an example of good writing, you should by my SF anthology, “The Dodo Dragon and other stories.”
    (Ahem!)


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