Is it time for another progress blog? You bet! Today, I’m going to give everyone some unsolicited random writing advice! What will we cover? All the stupid basics!
Writing Advice is Silly
Rule #1 of writing advice: shrug it all off. Every writer seems to have different and often contradictory ‘rules’ about writing. People generally agree that every author should have a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style but beyond that, well, it’s just experience and opinion. Some experience and opinion is valued more highly than others, of course. For instance, most writers I’ve met (especially genre writers) have a copy of Stephen Kings advice/memoir book On Writing. I’m personally a huge fan of Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing.
But if we’re all being completely honest, if writing were a science, computers would already be doing it.
Thankfully, current AI only seems able to generate acclaim-worthy work with about 80% of the heavy lifting being done by humans. So the work of the writer remains unmechanized for now. Though anyone working in print should murder the hope of any sort of retirement, if they haven’t already.
Point being: this isn’t science. It isn’t math. And considering the ever-evolving state of slang, colloquialism, and grammar, particularly in the fast-paced American language, maybe we should be careful about marrying any specific rules set, especially early in the game. But anyway,
Never Ban Words
Almost every writing-advice listicle I read includes a list of words to avoid. Commonly, “don’t use adverbs” (see what I did there?) Injunctions against filler words, filter words, and frilly words follow. Passive voice? Cut it. Too many syllables? Cut it. Does it end in -ly? You should be ashamed.
A sentence should be short, no? Sure. That makes sense. But a sentence should also flow, describe, evoke, and build. It should sound nice. It should look nice, too. There should be rhythm!
Arranging words is similar to arranging music.
Don’t limit yourself or box yourself in. Step 1: write. Sometimes you’ll use adverbs. Sometimes there’s an aesthetic pleasure to multi-syllabic verbs and adjectives. Even passive voice has its place. There’s an old adage somewhere about moderation but who can ever remember it?
If you bind yourself too tightly with banned words and grammatical restrictions, you’ll shrink your toolbox. You’ll narrow your knowledge. Try, instead, to expand your toolbox. Use fuckin’ everything.
But don’t bother showing anyone your first draft, because it’s probably awful.
Instead, after you’ve got it down, focus on
Editing, Editing, Editing…
Did you think writing was about writing?
Oh you poor, sweet summer child…
Writing is rewriting, as the saying goes. Rewriting and rewriting and rewriting again, and then, once that’s done, revising and revising and revising. Whether you’re self-published, indie-published, trad-published, or if you’re selling handbound chap books on the subway platform, it doesn’t matter. If you’re selling your first draft, or even your second draft, you’re probably selling shit.
More than half of your first draft is garbage, I hate to say. I usually start my second draft from scratch, from a pure-blank page, just to avoid using the same garbage prose of my first draft. The first draft anyone besides yourself should see is your second draft. More realistically, your second draft after a couple rounds of polish and revision.
That’s because you probably have a ton of stuff to fix.
A List of Questions, or: Fixing Your Terrible First Draft
Approach your first draft as you would approach a vile, pulsing heap of red-green biomatter squirming on your kitchen floor–that is: with revulsion, disgust, and a weapon.
If a small part of you doesn’t hate your first draft as soon as you’re done with it, I advise shelving it for a while and continuing to hone your craft by reading/writing more and more for a few months. By the time 4-5 months have passed, you’ll have read/written enough more to be properly revolted by your earlier work.
Now it’s time to pick it up, examine it, and make with the stabbing.
I’ve prepared a list of questions for you to ask yourself as you stab. It’s a list of questions I mutter to myself while editing and sometimes while I sleep.
- Are these words necessary? (for instance, “he saw the biomass pulse, its veins throbbing with red-black fluid” likely doesn’t require “he saw,” and it can probably be rearranged to excise the redundant ‘pulse’ and ‘throb’ verbiage.)
- Does the sentence sound good? (reading a manuscript aloud will help track down and gut all sorts of hiccups and arrhythmia in the prose.)
- What is the sentence doing? (are we learning about the character, action, setting, plot, etc? What do these words contribute to the work? If they don’t contribute, kill them. Think of editing like a sci-fi dystopian world where non-contributors are casually slaughtered.)
- Is the meaning clear? (an over-clutter of words, uncertain punctuation, or unclear noun/adjective/verb pairings can all confuse readers and destroy prose quality.)
- Is this shit boring? (as Elmore Leonard put it, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” As a director friend once put it: “The audience will forgive you almost anything, as long as you’re not boring.” — protip: if it was boring to write, it’ll be doubly boring to read.)
- Is this repetitive? (Does every sentence begin the same way? Have you used the same word too many times in a page, or, heaven forbid, in a paragraph?)
- Is there a volume issue? (Does the lurid text border on purple? Does the simplicity threaten austerity? Are the words too much, too little? This is the most subjective measurement, but very important.)
- Why? (Admittedly, I mutter this question to myself all the time, usually as a hollow whisper, a mournful murmur. “Why?” I ask, about everything, about everything all at once, from one horizon to the other. It’s also an important question about writing, though. There should be a ‘why’ behind just about every word, sentence, and paragraph on a page.)
I think that’s a fine list to start with–though the more one writes, the longer and more complex the list becomes. I do believe that covers all the basics, however, and some of the intermediate steps.
Write several times a week. Read at least a little bit every day. Take classes when available, if affordable. Show your second and third drafts to people and don’t shout down their criticisms (it’s very important, when asking for criticism, to listen to it.) Probably truer than any other piece of advice, “practice makes perfect.”
Read great writers. For quality of prose, I adore Cassandra Khaw, T. E. Grau, and Leni Zumas. For tight pacing, humor, and pulp craft, Raymond Chandler and Charlie Huston. Victor LaValle mastered the art of music and aesthetic long ago. A thousand other authors await your eyes, if you go looking.
Read voraciously and write viciously. Edit with unparalleled self-loathing. Brainstorm with fervor and madness, outline with enthusiasm, and write like a toothless speed freak. Review your work like an IRS auditor. Study the craft as if there’ll be a test on it any day now and you’ll be killed if you fail it.
That’s my advice. To hell with banned words and meditation. To hell with a thousand articles condemning adverbs and POV-filters and purple prose. To hell with anything that constrains your toolbox. Those tools are there for a reason, we just have to learn when and how to use them.Share This: