Judging by the sheer volume of it, advice on writing seems to be the easiest thing for most writers to produce.
Compared to say a novel or a eulogy, leaning back in your chair, staring pensively into the distance and scribbling “don’t start sentences with the word and” isn’t such a tough gig – even if you’re completely wrong about that. And you are.
When I started my Professional Writing MA in 2008, I asked a lot of established writers what advice they’d give to those just cutting their teeth. The responses I got ranged from the useful-if-not-quite-tangible “be your own favourite writer”, to the less-useful-but-quite-sage “I’d probably do something else”.
Here, we ignore the advice that should be taken with a pinch of salt and focus on 11 tips from 11 writing heavyweights that can help us become better at what we do. From Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway to Anton Chekhov and Stephen King, here’s some advice you can take without any seasoning at all.
“The first draft of everything is shit.” / “All writing is rewriting.”
– Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway also famously said that one should “write drunk, edit sober”, which may go some way to explaining why his first drafts were shit. But, the good news is they’re allowed to be.
The beauty of a first draft is that no one ever has to see it. Give yourself permission to write terribly, because if you’re expecting perfection right off the bat you’ll only ever be disappointed – and sometimes just getting started is the most important bit.
So, get your ideas down. Allow for untidy grammar, clumsy segues, and whatever other cardinal sins you wish to commit. Then polish it all up and pretend it came easy to you straight away. That, more than anything, is the art of writing.
“Listen to the criticisms and preferences of your trusted ‘first readers’.”
– Rose Tremain
And, if you need a little help with your shit first drafts…
There’s a little voice inside every writer’s head that will violently fluctuate between telling them they’re either a bona fide genius and a hack imposter. As Sylvia Plath once said, “the worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt”, but misguided confidence is just as big a problem.
That’s why it’s important to have people you trust offer honest feedback of your work. Our job at Radix would be impossible without a peer review system. And I think all writers, no matter what kind of work they do, would say the same.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
– Anton Chekhov
This quote speaks for itself. “Show don’t tell” is probably the most oft-repeated and valuable writing advice there is – but it’s also a bit boring. Here, Chekhov gives the same advice, while following it. Much more entertaining, no?
“Read a lot. Reading really helps. Read anything you can get your hands on.”
– JK Rowling
I was once partnered with a writer on a screenplay project who gleefully told me they’d never read a screenplay before. The only saving grace was they weren’t tasked with a more consequential vocation, like piloting long-haul flights or maintaining nuclear warheads.
Here’s the thing: to be good at your craft, whether you’re writing books or Christmas cracker jokes, you have to understand it. That means pulling apart the finished pieces and looking at all the cogs that make them work. The best way to do that – and the bare minimum for any aspiring or established writer – is to read as much work in your field (and outside your field) as possible.
“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
This is very damn good advice.
Unnecessary words, or pleonasms – a word pretty unnecessary in itself – are a bad habit that can easily creep into a writer’s work. They’re like garden weeds and will quickly draw attention away from all the flowers you meant to plant.
(I promise that’s the last flower metaphor I’m ever going to use. I didn’t like it either.)
There are numerous examples of this and all writers catch themselves doing it. That’s why we edit. ‘In order to’ instead of ‘to’ is one that Matt, our head of copywriting, has drummed out of the office. (So if you ever get a chance to sneak this into an email to him just to grind his gears, go for it.)
Our advice is to read what you’ve written carefully and ask yourself, sentence by sentence, word by word, “does that really need to be there?”
“Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.”
– David Ogilvy
Not strictly a writer, David Ogilvy was an advertising tycoon. In fact, he was such a good advertising tycoon he became known as ‘The Father of Advertising’, so his advice might be especially pertinent to those of us in marketing. Presumably the mother of advertising has since distanced herself from her tearaway offspring.
Although I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen three of these words used anywhere, the point stands that bad – as in unhelpful – jargon is the scourge of marketing copy. (Good jargon, on the other hand, is something we actively encourage.)
The sticking point with this is that every copywriter you talk to will have their own list of words you should never use, and if you listened to all of them you probably wouldn’t write much of anything.
Make your own decisions, but make sure when you say something it says something.
“The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”
– Agatha Christie
I’m not for one moment suggesting you should actually do the dishes – although if you happen to use the shared kitchen in our office building then it might be an idea (I’m looking at you, Studio G) – but there is something to be said about doing something non-screen-based to get your creative juices flowing.
For instance, I do my best thinking in the shower, which is something absolutely none of you wanted to know.
This technique is especially useful if you’re suffering from any form of writer’s block. Give your mind permission to focus on something else and you might find you soon have the inspiration you were looking for.
As an interesting side-note, did you know Christie once plotted her own disappearance? Classic Agatha.
“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”
– Oscar Wilde
There used to be a running joke in our office about all marketing emails starting with some variation of “In these turbulent economic times…” or “In today’s volatile economy…”
The fact is, it’s easy to fall into repetitious habits with your writing, especially when you are asked to write similar things over and over again. That’s why it’s so important to identify your linguistic go-tos and make sure you don’t lean on them too much. Try to find different approaches to avoid laziness and both you and your clients will thank you for it.
“Take risks; don’t play it safe.”
– Stephen King
On a similar note, there’s perhaps nothing more important than taking risks with your writing and deviating from the path most travelled. Otherwise, all you’ll ever do is produce things someone else either could produce or has produced before.
Stephen King said, “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. Try any goddamn thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it”.
In our line of work the ‘completely outrageous’ isn’t an option, but the ‘boringly normal’ shouldn’t be either.
“Brevity is the sister of talent.”
– Anton Chekhov
“I leave out the parts that people skip.”
– Elmore Leonard
The irony of putting this tip towards the end of a 1,500 word blog post isn’t lost on me, but this was always going to be a case of ‘do what I say, not what I do’.
The key message here: get to the point. Cut anything and everything that isn’t telling your audience something or adding important colour.
As William Strunk Jr taught us in The Elements of Style, “a sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell”.
I’ll leave you to decide what counts as an essential flourish and what is just getting in the way of making your words tell. And of course, that’s the hard bit – and what makes a good writer.
“Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.”
– Lev Grossman
And finally, ignore everything I’ve just said. And everyone else for that matter.