Tag Archives: writing fiction

An aggregated and definitive top ten list of writing tips

Tips for writing good circulate the Internet like La Niña weather systems, or the flu. There’s a batch around the place now, most of these lists have been collated at The Guardian and at BigHow.com.

Writing Tips Wordle

Image Credit: Wordle of the lists linked above

I’ve had a little look through the advice given, and these, by frequency, are the top ten tips from famous, and usually good, writers. Writers who often contradict each other. Which says something about the quality of such advice. Most of the advice is ridiculously obvious, but there’s nothing wrong with stating the obvious.

I do think there’s something in some of the tips being held in tension – like “just write” and “write to a meticulous plan” – one is more about honing your voice, the other is more about producing something with it. I also think there’s something in most of these for any communicator who uses words.

I tried to capture the essence of most of the advice given when I was collating these. And I’ve ordered this list by frequency, rather than in logical, or chronological, order. The numbers in brackets represent the number of times something came up.

  1. Be Clear. Don’t overwrite.

    Practice clarity of expression and thinking. Short words. The right words. Make adverbs, adjectives, and description functional, not ornamental, but mostly avoid them. Leave out bits people don’t want to read.  Punctuate well. Carry dialogue with said. No frills. Clear sentences. Concrete thought. Edit harshly to achieve this. Make every sentence do something to a character, or for your plot. Write till the sentence/paragraph/page/book is its best, but it’ll never feel good enough. Good ideas often do away with bad. Be prepared to change things. Finish. (46)

  2. Plan and be disciplined.

    Avoid distractions like TV and the Internet. Schedule writing time. Writing is work. Keep going. Try to love it. Know we’re your work is going, go there. Nowhere else. Only include what is necessary. Know your structure and cover it with apt words and phrases. (42)

  3. Edit Hard.

    Write. Pause. Edit. Rewrite. Often. If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. Improve. Pull the trigger on the bad stuff (and cop it when someone else does). Edit at the end, or as you go, but edit well. Be self-critical, trust and care about your reader, don’t waste their time.  (36)

  4. Write from your heart.

    Write about what you know and believe. What you have lived. What you imagine (probe the unknown). Think well. Write powerfully. Write truth. With compassion. Tell a story you care about. Write to engage (yourself first). Then persuade and transform. If it’s fiction – live your story. (33)

  5. Just write.

    Every day.  Anywhere. Write lots. Don’t worry too much about plot or structure. Practice. Start anywhere. Get something down. As it happens. Keep writing. Stop mid sentence/idea and resume the next day knowing where you were going. Finish when you want to continue. (32)

  6. Read widely.

    Read good writing, including poetry. Immerse yourself. Observe structure, figure out how writing works and what works. Borrow good turns of phrase, vocab, etc. From anywhere. But make them yours and avoid cliché and jargon (and most similes and metaphors), bad writing is contagious. (31)

  7. Figure out your style.

    Read your work aloud. Think about rhythm and pace. Care about style. But use it to suit. Ignore rules if need be. Style is about getting you out of the way. Know and be aware of grammar but be prepared to break the rules. Think about your voice, be authentic. (30)

  8. Capture inspiration.

    Ideas and inspiration come from everywhere. Including your feelings. Go to places. Think with your senses. Life is a story. Carry a notebook. Keep a diary. (21)

  9. Know your audience, and yourself.

    Listen to people/readers you respect, but don’t care too much what other people think. The reader is your friend. But don’t write for them or for the “market.” (21)

  10. Characterise well.

    Characters should be necessary, and their necessity obvious. Introduce characters early. Think about psychology and motives. Make characters relatable, and appropriately likeable or unlikeable. Present them consistently so actions and words match character. Make them confront stuff. (17)

Guide to writing good fiction

I’ve never written more than a chapter of fiction (I have about 20 first chapters though if anybody wants to buy some). I always get stuck on giving good names to characters. Plot devices aren’t all that hard, there are only six plots afterall, and a limited number of twists. And character development (except for the elusive name) doesn’t phase me. The final piece of the writing puzzle is reaching an audience. You do this by being popular. Here’s a quick guide to popularity from XKCD.

Fiction Rule of Thumb

Tolkien, Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll get an exemption in the alt text.

The author of Tarzan on writing fiction

Are you reading Letters of Note yet? If not you’ll have missed this interchange between a youngster (a boy named Forrest Ackerman who later went on to coin the term “sci fi”) and Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of Tarzan.

Ackerman, at 14, wrote Burroughs after his English teacher spend a lesson decrying the author’s popular schlock fiction. He describes the tirade as follows:

Well with that she burst into a perfect tirade! “If I were to buy the highest priced box of chocolates obtainable,” she said, “and were to offer it to you along with a box of old cheap stuff, which would you take? Why the good candy of course! Yet you’ll go to extremes to pick up this horrid literature out of the garbage cans such as Burroughs writes.” — and she went on for hours and hours and hours. I got in a good word for you every chance I could.

And then signs off with class belying his age:

“I don’t expect you’ll bother to answer this–maybe you haven’t even read it–but anyway will you please autograph the enclosed card and return it to me. Thank you, so much!

And now I’d better sign off. I certainly envy the fellow–if there is such a fellow–that is friendly enough with you to call you Eddie!”

Burroughs did reply. With a lesson on good fiction and bad criticism.

“Tell your teacher that, though she may be right about my stories, there are some fifty million people in the world who will not agree with her, which is fortunate for me, since even writers of garbage-can literature must eat.

My stories will do you no harm. If they have helped to inculcate in you a love of books, they have done you much good. No fiction is worth reading except for entertainment. If it entertains and is clean, it is good literature, or its kind. If it forms the habit of reading, in people who might not read otherwise, it is the best literature.

Last year I followed the English course prescribed for my two sons, who are in college. The required reading seemed to have been selected for the sole purpose of turning the hearts of young people against books. That, however, seems to be a universal pedagogical complex: to make the acquiring of knowledge a punishment, rather than a pleasure.”

Brilliant.