Pithy Writing Advice

A number of writers I respect and admire have written books on how to write.  These books range widely in detail and quality.  Some are short and deep, others are large and shallow.  I’ve consumed a few books on writing, with one of my favorites being by Stephen King called On Writing.

I’ve been a writer off and on for over 30 years.  The last 10 have been particularly rich in terms of skill growth and quality output.  For all of that, I wouldn’t feel comfortable trying to write a book on the subject.  I have enough information to fill an essay or a blog post, though, so that’s what we’re doing tonight!

 

1. Read Widely

I’ve already talked about this earlier in the month so I’ll be brief.  Writers need to read broadly and continuously in order to see what works and what doesn’t work.  They need to be entertained and immersed in the kinds of stories that they want to create.  I don’t know any good writers that aren’t also voracious readers.  So go read.

 

2. Use Strong Verbs

This is the most useful advice I’ve ever been, and it has drastically improved my writing.  Verbs make your sentences stand out.  They lift your story off the page and kindle the imagination.  I’m using stronger verbs right now and this is probably the most exciting paragraph you’re going to read tonight because this paragraph yearns to prove itself and make you understand.  Just as the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, so too are verbs the muscles of the sentence.

Let’s try a quick example off the top of my head.

Joe was on the couch.

This pedestrian sentence doesn’t excite anyone.  It lacks a strong verb and it lacks specificity.  From this sentence alone, I have no idea what Joe is actually doing.  He has commandeered the couch in some vague fashion and the writer hasn’t given us a clue as to whether or not there’s room on the couch for anyone else.

Joe was sitting on the couch.

This seems a little bit better, but a good rule of thumb is that if your verb takes more than one word, it’s weak.  The verb in this sentence is “was sitting.” That pesky “was” isn’t helping Joe out at all.  We can do better.  Let’s drop the word “was” and make Joe an actual participant in this sentence.

Joe sat on the couch.

This is a good sentence.  It’s brief and to the point.  A little bit boring, but at least Joe’s an active character now.  He’s a contributing member of society.  He votes, and he sits on couches rather than being placed on them like a doll.  We can add more detail if we want the sentence to be a little bit less boring.

Joe sat on the couch with his legs stretched out on an ottoman, one arm draped over the seat back next to him as if waiting to wrap it around the first person to sit beside to him.

You might not like this sentence.  I’m not sure I like it.  That comma splice in the middle worries me a little.  But Joe is now an active member of this sentence with hints of his character starting to shine through.  I don’t know much about him but I know that a man sitting like that, open and inviting, has confidence.  He might even be displaying power and social status.

We’re done with Joe for now.  I hope I made my point about verbs.  Strong verbs keep the reader awake and turning the page.  Weak verbs invite yawns and boredom.

 

3. Avoid Adverbs

New writers hear this one all the time.  It’s not horrendous advice but it is often overstated.  This piece of advice is often repeated often without an explanation of why.

Here are the two main reasons you should avoid adverbs:

  1. They weaken the verb they’re meant to amplify
  2. They tend to do a lot more telling than showing

That first point I’ve already touched on.  The more words involved in the verb, the weaker the verb is.  Let’s bring Joe back for another couple of examples.

Joe knocked on the door angrily.

At a glance, that sentence might seem fine.  It’s okay.  It’s not the worst sentence in the world.  It shows up to work and does its job, but it’s not winning any awards and it certainly isn’t winning any promotions.  Let’s make it better.

Joe pounded on the door.

This sentence is putting in a little bit of overtime and it’s using less words to do it.  With this one, I can hear Joe’s fist slamming on the wood.  I can see how Joe is holding his arm, his bicep flexed and his knuckles white as he strikes the door with bottom of his fist rather than the front of his fingers.

The second sentence is better than the first.  It’s both more efficient and more descriptive at the same time.

Some writers offering advice on eschewing adverbs go too far.  They might go so far as to say never use them.  I subscribe to a much more lenient philosophy.

Adverbs are a tool in your toolbox.  New writers have a tendency to overuse them because they’re easy to drop into sentences.  They provide a shortcut to telling the reader some information that they want to get across.  Sometimes it’s fine to use the shortcut.

Sometimes the right adverb can make a sentence fun.  I remember looking at a video of an old fashioned printing press.  The contraption had all these moving parts collapsing in on themselves, making it look like a partly unfolded wood chipper.  There were no safety rails or guards on this device that I could see.  I remember writing about it:

I can see someone misjudging and pulling their hand back with freshly waffled fingers.

This isn’t a bad sentence.  I particularly like the last part because the cadence of “freshly waffled fingers” has a bounce to it that makes the sentence sparkle.

Of course, I’m kind of cheating with this example because while “freshly” looks like an adverb, it’s amplifying “waffled” which is an adjective enhancing “fingers.”  There aren’t any adverbs in that sentence.  Be that as it may, if we rearranged it so that “freshly” did become a proper adverb again, and we managed to keep that delightful rhythm in tact, wouldn’t the sentence still work?

Adverbs are a tool in the writer’s toolbox.  They’re a special tool and should be used sparingly, but that doesn’t mean they should never be used.  Just use them wisely.

4. Adjectives are Delicious

Marketers learned this trick a long time ago and they take advantage of it constantly.  If you want to make something delicious, pour on the adjectives.

Let’s do another exercise.

Bacon.

Lots of people like bacon, but we can do better.

Crispy bacon.

Now we’re talking.  We added one word and already I’m hankering for a BLT.

Bacon is easy, though.  Let’s try something a little more challenging.  And here’s a hint: the adjectives don’t even have to make sense or have anything to do with the food that you’re describing.  Just adding the extra words makes the food more desirable.

Oatmeal.

Yuck.  No one wants plain oatmeal.

Fresh oatmeal.

Better. What else ya got?

Fresh, buttered, steel-cut oatmeal sweetened with cinnamon, brown sugar, and maple syrup.

A little known fact… I make the best oatmeal.  Seriously you should try it sometime.

I’m saying that adjectives are delicious, but what I really mean is that adjectives are multipliers.  When you’re describing food, you can make the food more delicious by stacking adjectives.  You can also make a corpse more terrifying, a monster more frightening, a weapon more deadly, a dress more beautiful… you get the idea.

The cost of using adjectives as amplifiers is pacing.  Going back to food as the metaphor, adjectives will make your dessert more rich.  The reader will have to chew more slowly to get through your descriptive sentence.  If you’re in the middle of a chase scene, the reader isn’t going to want to sniff the sweet and honeyed flowers, the petals of which are smooth and soft and bursting with Spring colors.  When the story needs to go quickly, you need to ditch the frills.  Stick with what’s important and keep the sentences short.

Rich sentences with thick adjectives are great right after a fast sequence, not only because you can contrasting the pacing, but also because you can enhance the emotional reaction of the reader by focusing on the details that invoke the desired emotions.

5. Emotions and Chapters

This one is a little bit complicated.  Also, we’re pulling back a little bit.  Focusing on verbs, adjectives, and adverbs is getting right down into the microscopic level of sentence construction.  With chapters, we’re pulling back far enough to see more of the structure.

If you begin your chapter at an emotionally high place, end your chapter at an emotionally low place.  If the characters are comfortable in the beginning of the chapter, driving along with their windows down and the radio playing, end the chapter with the character pulled over, stressed out, wondering what the hell they’re going to do next.

The length of a chapter doesn’t really matter.  All that matters is that something changed between the beginning and the end of the chapter.  There should be an emotional curve.

Also, it’s best when your chapters end in such a way that the readers are encouraged to the turn the page and keeping going on into the next.  Some people might describe this as a cliffhanger, but really it’s just ending with a question.  It doesn’t matter if the character is in peril or if they just opened the treasure chest they’ve been seeking and they’re about to look inside.  If you end a chapter on a question, any kind of question, the reader will turn the page looking for an answer.  If you end a chapter too cleanly, they might put the book down and forget to pick it back up again.

6. Do Whatever Works

Every writer is different.  We’re all people.  Some like to listen to music while they write, and others (like me) prefer silence or white noise.  Some people need detailed outlines in order to feel comfortable writing, while others get bored with the story if they know too much of what happens before they even begin.  Some writers need seven or eight drafts before they get it right.  Others get it done in one or two (but I would argue that the ones that actually get it done in one are rare).

There are lots of writers on the internet, and most of them offer advice.  Listen to them with an open mind, but only do what works for you.  You’re unique.  Your writing journey is going to be different than anyone else’s.  What works for me isn’t necessarily what’s going to work for you.

Here is an example of something I do which may or may not work for you.  When I need to end a writing session, I often stop in the middle of a sentence.  That way when I go back to start writing again, I’m forced to get into the mindset inhabited before I took the break.  This method works well for me.

I write chronologically.  Some writers write whatever scene they want to work on at the time, wherever that may be in their story’s timeline.  I start from the beginning and proceed until I get to the end.

Don’t be afraid to experiment.  Do you write a lot of stuff in first person?  Try something in third.  Or second!  Do you write in past tense?  Try writing something in present tense.

Artists doodle in their sketchbook.  Musicians practice on their instruments playing riffs and scales.  Writers shouldn’t be afraid to practice and play around, too.  Open up your word processor or notepad and write a story that you know you’re going to throw away.  It’s fine.  Free yourself from the expectation of presenting your work to someone else and just see what you create when there is no pressure.

As much writing advice as there is out there, as many books as there are published on the subject, none of it is as useful as the experience of writing.  In the process of writing and experimenting, you will find what works for you and what doesn’t.

Figure out what works for you.  Then keep doing that.

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