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Writing Advice

As you may be aware I recently published a first attempt at writing by a young man called NicNac. He contacted me again over this weekend and asked me for some advice about writing. He explained that his problem was that he had a collection of jumbled thoughts and had difficulty in organizing those thoughts on paper.

Now at first I didn’t think too deeply about this request but as the day wore on I thought I really need to help him out. It’s flattering to think that he turned to me  when there are so many resources out there on the web. That also got me to thinking about the plethora of writing resources. The truth is that most web sites offering  help to wannabe writers and authors are trying to sell you a product. Okay they may throw in some freebies which can often be helpful. That is the bait and once they have you hooked they reel you in to purchase some kind of “invaluable” writing aid or course.

There are many writing and blogging groups out there too and not just confined to Facebook.  The Facebook groups seem obsessed with swapping ‘Likes’ for bloggers’ Facebook Pages. There is far too much concentration on social media and not enough solid writing advice. I have an honest belief that too many in the ‘writing business’ over complicate matters. The great writers of yesteryear managed without the internet and still produced great works of art if not masterpieces. The present day ‘advice business’ unnecessarily uses too much jargon and pseudo-scientific methods in the attempt to bamboozle folk. As my blogging friend Adam commented  on this blog recently –

Legalese, bureaucratese, newspeak, double-talk – it’s all in the realm of the “debasement of language,” but it comes in the form of “elevated” language: people feel smarter when they use it.

The colloquial language on the right side just has more damn vitality (and honesty!) to it – perhaps a close equivalent to what “My Cousin Vinny” might have used.

Great post.

He is right. This is the simple advice I gave to NicNac –

Tips OK try this basic one first – when you write think about this – How Why Where When Who. Not necessarily in that order!

Then later I added –

I was thinking about your request and I also came up with this – your writing is basically good from an originality point of view. So if I were you then I would just let all your thoughts flow and get them all down in Word. Then after you have finished “saying” what is in your head go back to your Word doc. Take your time and ask yourself “does it make sense?” “is it in the correct order?” “could I structure it better?”. That is a good first step for you I think. Then Step 2 could be polishing it, correcting little mistakes, spell check, improving and adding to it if necessary. Hope that helps. If you want to send me something (say 500 words or so) that you have completed following Steps 1 and 2 then I will give you feedback.

Later that day I commenced a quest to look for writing nuggets of wisdom from eminent writers about keeping writing  simple. This is the best I could find –

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway

If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.– Somerset Maugham

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

– William Shakespeare (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly. – C. J. Cherryh

It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous. – Robert Benchley

I have been successful probably because I have always realized that I knew nothing about writing and have merely tried to tell an interesting story entertainingly. – Edgar Rice Burroughs
Then I found these 21 tips –

  1. The first draft of everything is shit. -Ernest Hemingway
  2. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass. -David Ogilvy
  3. If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy. – Dorothy Parker.
  4. Notice how many of the Olympic athletes effusively thanked their mothers for their success? “She drove me to my practice at four in the morning,” etc. Writing is not figure skating or skiing. Your mother will not make you a writer. My advice to any young person who wants to write is: leave home. -Paul Theroux
  5. I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide. — Harper Lee
  6. You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. ― Jack London
  7. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. — George Orwell
  8. There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. ― W. Somerset Maugham
  9. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time — or the tools — to write. Simple as that. – Stephen King
  10. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. – Neil Gaiman
  11. Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die. – Anne Enright
  12. If writing seems hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things people do. – William Zinsser
  13. Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. – Kurt Vonnegut
  14. Prose is architecture, not interior decoration. – Ernest Hemingway
  15. Write drunk, edit sober. – Ernest Hemingway
  16. Get through a draft as quickly as possible. Hard to know the shape of the thing until you have a draft. Literally, when I wrote the last page of my first draft of Lincoln’s Melancholy I thought, Oh, shit, now I get the shape of this. But I had wasted years, literally years, writing and re-writing the first third to first half. The old writer’s rule applies: Have the courage to write badly. – Joshua Wolf Shenk
  17. 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
  18. Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that — but you are the only you. ― Neil Gaiman
  19. Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative. – Oscar Wilde
  20. You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you. ― Ray Bradbury
  21. Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously. – Lev Grossman

Clearly there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach to writing. I think that is the real problem I have with the template-style approach of the modern writing advice gurus. Remember this – many are primarily interested in your buck and not your book!

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  1. Chris J Chris J

    Good advice overall. The best advice I can think of for a writer to improve is to…well, write. Write, write!! Put your thoughts down. I liken writing much to improving drawing skills. You have 10,000 bad pictures within you…get them done and out as quickly as you can, then the rest of the good ones will start to flow. Apply to words and paragraphs and you’re set.

  2. Adam Adam

    Flattered that you quoted me, though I would defer to those writers you list before offering any actual writing advice myself. The Hemingway nuggets are nice and pithy–and damned true, too. I’m rather fond of Twain as well, and the advice Theroux offers (it certainly worked for James Joyce).

    Here’s a couple of gems from Werner Herzog (and though his are in the realm of “filmmaking & life advice,” many of them are relevant to writing, which, of course, you need to know something about if you want to make a good film):

    17. Don’t be fearful of rejection. (In the realm of Harper Lee’s advice.)

    18. Develop your own voice. (Something that’s VERY hard to do, especially if you haven’t done what Stephen King suggests.)

    24. Get used to the bear behind you. (That one’s open to interpretation, but it’s my favourite.)

    The remaining 21 (in a list of 24) pieces of advice can be found here:

  3. Jerry Jerry

    I’d like to add, Get rid of any ego you may have that is connected to the word ‘writer’. Get rid of any preconceived idea of what a writer is and what a writer does. Because there will be someone who knows better than you. And that someone has no idea of of what a writer does.

    I have stopped telling most that I am a writer. The first question I usually get, “Oh, great! What books have you published on Amazon?” When I answer none there’s a palatable let down in their demeanor and an “Oh.” I then (no longer do I) feel obligated to explain, not as a means to educate, but as a means of defending myself and all writers that are not book authors.

    Also, if you have that ‘ego’ you will let things like when others observe: “You (or your husband/BF) write?” Followed with, “Difficult finding a job, hey?”

    Best advice for writers and everyone else I like:
    “This above all: to thine own self be true,
    And it must follow, as the night the day,
    Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
    – Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78–82

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