8 Pieces of advice about writing worth listening to

You don’t know what you don’t know, and when you’re starting out in this writing business, new writers are inundated with unsolicited advice. Which advice is worth listening to? I polled my writing peeps on G+ and Facebook to find out what advice about writing they found to be truly helpful.

book spine that says The Student Handbook1. Keep Writing

This one came up several times making it the #1 choice of those who responded. Whether you think what you’re writing is dreck or ready for the NY Times bestseller list, keep writing. Write when you get rejected. Write when it comes easy, especially write when it’s hard. The discipline required to carve out a chunk of time every day is invaluable. The best way to learn is by doing.

2. Show Don’t Tell

Yeah, who hasn’t heard this one? If you’ve been writing for any length of time, this one ends up appearing repeatedly. Ever read an archaeology report (my apologies to archaeologists – I’m sure there’s method in the madness) – Boring. Oh my! Object x found in quadrant such and such in y position…. Yikes. When all you do is rattle off facts and numbers, report on what your character is doing, it’s about as much fun to read as an archeology report. Here’s a great post on Show Don’t Tell

3. Connect with other writers

No man is an island, as they say. Writing is such a solitary profession – find a writer’s group either locally or online. Go to a writer’s conference. With Skype, Facebook, G+, blogs – it’s easier than ever to find and connect with other like-minded individuals. And share what you’re writing – be willing to take a chance to get some honest feedback. That’s how you grow.

4. You don’t have to write well, you have to rewrite well

Thanks to Jennie Coughlin – I hadn’t heard this one, but it’s very true. It drives Marcy (a planner) crazy that I have to write three drafts before I really get close to the final product I’m looking for. I call it a vomit draft. I think it harkens back to elementary school where the teacher made me write a rough copy of everything first. The first draft always sucks – accept that it’s not going to be awesome the first time out – and edit later. When I’m submitting to magazines or newspapers, when time allows, I like to write the piece 3-5 days ahead of time. Then I go back and edit with fresh perspective – and the piece is always better for it.

5. Avoid the Big Easy

The big easy is the very first idea that springs into your head. Randy Ingermanson, creator of the snowflake method, says you need to give yourself permission to discover the answer, don’t just grab the first idea that comes to mind. I had a creative writing teacher in high school make a rule that girls could not write about horses, and boys could not write about cars. That wasn’t a problem for me – I wrote about sexual abuse, abandonment, haunting, grief and death. Any of my stories likely would have landed me in the guidance counselor’s office today. Take your first idea, and dig deeper to really tap into your creativity and produce something fresh and unique.

6. Know the rules, then break them

Usually this is used in reference to grammar and syntax, but I think it has wider appeal than that. How many of you have been reading a book, stopped at a given point and said to yourself, “I thought you weren’t supposed to do that?” Today, fiction writers use sentence fragments, begin sentences with conjunctions  – any number of ‘rules’ your English teacher would have circled in red ink with abandon. If your entire novel consisted of sentence fragments you’d lose readers fast, but used sparingly with a purpose, they can increase the pace of your novel and lend authenticity to dialogue. If you break the rules, you must know why you’re breaking them and what effect you hope it will give readers. There’s no excuse for lazy writing or poor technique.

7. Less is more!

Ever read a full page of description about a setting that’s largely irrelevant to the novel? One of the hardest things to learn is to write tight and trim the fat. Jennie Coughlin responded on G+: “I had a copy desk chief one time who told me that every story should be trimmed by 10% before being turned in. Sometimes it’s hard, but it makes a big difference.” One of the Marketing Managers I work on contract for is notorious for saying, “Take this, cut it down by 40% and bring it back to me.”

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” -Mark Twain-

And last but not least…

8. Write what you know

Now before you bash me, because this one is my own, hear me out. I’ve read interviews with many authors who take a subject they’re already interested in, or know a lot about, and give that same interest to a character. Patricia Briggs writes urban fantasy and said her character Mercy Thompson is a VW mechanic because her husband often had a couple of VW’s in the yard repairing them. James Scott Bell is/was a lawyer, so he writes legal thrillers.

As a short non-fiction writer trying to break into magazines, personal experience stories tend to be the easiest to place. I just finished an article for Clubhouse Magazine about a new skill my daughter learned. I’ve written about parenting, overcoming PTSD, co-writing – these are all things I’ve done. There are definitely limitations to this rule, but don’t casually ignore this one.

So, what about you? What’s the best piece (as in most helpful) piece of writing advice you’ve received? Or, share the worst piece of advice you received.

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.


15 comments on “8 Pieces of advice about writing worth listening to

  1. Love this post. I hadn’t heard the “rewrite well” bit put quite like that but it really helped bring things together for me. Thank you.

  2. Great advice! I like the piece about avoiding the “big easy.” Lately, I’ve been paying attention to how writers get their characters into more and more hot water — and then somehow get them out again, usually in a way I wouldn’t have though of. Obviously, I need to push myself further in my writing, to think about all the implications of what my characters do… and how they should respond to those problems.

  3. Yes, that’s important. Marcy and I have a system where I get our characters into trouble – and she gets them out. It helps to level out our pantser/planner issues 🙂 Keep writing.


  4. Write without distractions! Oh my when the kids are running in and out I end up so aggravated because they break my train of thought. I have to find someplace private where they cannot bother me or I am unable to dig deeper and write from my heart.

    Carving out time is one that I am still working on. As much as I hate working with deadlines, they definitely serve a good purpose. If you don’t have a publisher pushing you yet then set goals for yourself. Even small ones help. Say I will get 2000 words on paper today and stick to it!

    Best of wishes!


  5. The one piece of advice that echos through my brain… is just get the “darn” novel finished.
    I’m reading a great book. “Writing & Selling the YA Novel” by K.L. Going. What I’ve gleaned thus far, write everyday to keep the momentum going. ’cause, if you dare stop…gulp, you know what happens next…

  6. Pingback: Friday Writing Favourites « The Write Cafe

  7. Surprise…I loved this post. (wink, wink about the surprise part)

    The advice that rings in my ears most loudly right now is “Creative non-fiction holds the reader’s attention much more than ‘archeological reports.'” OK, so no-one has actually said that to me, but you get the idea.

    Because I’m co-authoring a memoir and editing another, it’s important they read like novels. The old “show don’t tell” definitely comes into play. Tracy Campbell pointed out where I was showing. (I do it a lot.) Between the three of you, my writing is developing, and the manuscripts will be far more readable. Thanks, all!

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