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Clear and Simple Writing Advice

March 10, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 10, 2011

The suggestions I make and the advice I offer here will sound familiar to some of you. I’m listing suggestions I’ve made in other articles, the same suggestions countless editors, writing teachers, and agents offer repeatedly.

So, why repeat myself to say what’s already been said? Because maybe a new writer has missed those other articles and books and advice lists and will read this and be encouraged to both write and write well.

There are no shortcuts to writing a novel. You have to write the danged thing.

There are no shortcuts to writing a good novel. You have to know both the elements that go into a novel and those elements that will make it good.

Simple.

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Writers need knowledge.

And experience.

And as writers gain experience in writing, they’ll gain knowledge. But writers can also gain knowledge from others.

Information about writing, editing, publishing, and querying is abundant. All those with access to a computer can have their questions answered. So don’t be hesitant about looking for information and answers. But check with multiple sources—don’t rely on a single person or group to answer all your questions.

To get started and to advance as a writer, learn and then practice the basics.

1.  Read. Daily.

2.  Learn what can be done with words. Play with them. Manipulate them. Become familiar with words, the most essential and basic of a writer’s tools.

3.  Learn what a short story is, what makes a poem poetry, how to develop and present a convincing argument step by step.

4.  Write. Write poetry, short stories, essays, dialogue, character sketches. Write stream-of-consciousness musings. Write overly detailed instructions on how to perform a task. Write a five-sentence story. Write a three-word poem.

5.  Learn what goes into a novel. You’re going to need that information for the next suggestion.

6.  Write a novel.

7.  Recognize that your first novel is not going to be a masterpiece.

In the Middle Ages, an apprentice or journeyman was granted the status of master craftsman after his master deemed he was ready. The apprentice worked on many projects until presenting the one that convinced his mentor (and their guild) that he had earned the title of master, meaning he had mastered the craft. 

In current usage, masterpiece means someone’s best work.

8.  A first draft is not a finished manuscript. Realize that you will need to edit and rewrite.

9.  Understand that none of the words you’ve written are priceless, untouchable, sacrosanct. You will cut words from your manuscripts and doing so will improve your stories.

 10.  Learn the craft. Learn how to develop characters and unfold plot, how to mix dialogue with exposition, how to write scenes, and how to stir reader emotions. Learn about point of view and genre.

Learn what back story is and learn when and where it’s appropriate to add to a story. Learn how to add it to a story.

11.  Learn the mechanics. Study grammar and punctuation. Practice different sentence constructions. Learn the meanings of words and how word choice affects plot, tone, and reader expectations.

12.  Write another novel using what you learned from writing the last one.

13.  Remind yourself that not all readers will love your work—your plots, your characters, or your style. And acknowledge that it’s no big deal when they don’t.

14.  Keep the reader in mind; know your audience.

15.  Most important suggestion? Take this advice and these suggestions to heart. Don’t just look at this as another list of things to do and then check off. Follow the suggestions. Make them a part of your writing life. See if they don’t make you a better writer.

See if they don’t help you avoid mistakes that countless numbers of new writers make, mistakes that delay writing or publishing success for so many.

*******

Don’t expect miracles—you will not be the first writer to write the perfect first draft and win a Pulitzer with that perfect first draft and have Hollywood beating down your door for the chance to make the movie from that perfect first draft.

Yes, you can dream; those dreams will carry you through long and longer nights and frustration and doubt. But writing, creating something from nothing other than imagination, requires more than dreams. It requires patience, and trial and error. It requires work. It requires discipline.

Do both, the dreaming and the working. Imagine. And then show your readers what you’ve imagined. Get them imagining too.

Write good story.

Write well.

Create worlds and adventures with your words.

***

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15 Responses to “Clear and Simple Writing Advice”

  1. SG Redling says:

    I love this! First of all, I’m a list junkie. Secondly, these basics cannot be repeated often enough. For those of us who have been toiling away at the writing game for years, these are as basic as the ABC’s. But as you pointed out, with compassion I might add, there’s always going to be someone new to the game. Good for you for setting these out so clearly!

  2. SG, thanks for the kind words. Lists do seem to help, don’t they? They make the information that much easier to remember. I’m glad you stopped by.

  3. Sound advice Beth, the more I learn about writing from helpful people like yourself is very much appreciated, thanks, Jeffrey.

  4. Jeffrey, you are welcome.

  5. Maria says:

    Thank you for your good advice. I am finishing my first draft of my first novel, and I keep forgetting that not everyone will think it is funny in certain parts. This happens when I read my husband something and well he doesn’t laugh. Not everyone will like my work and that is alright. Someone will.
    I was wondering if you give advice on publishing. Are conferences a must?

  6. Maria, congratulations on being close to finishing that first draft! That’s an awesome accomplishment. Don’t forget to celebrate.

    Remember also to put the story aside when you finish, for several weeks at least. Don’t think about it. Don’t peek at it. Don’t fix just that one little thing. Put some time between you and the writing and between you and your story world. Write something else. Do something else. Then you can head back to the manuscript with fresh eyes and the right attitude to begin your rewrites.

    I’ll remind you that this is where the real work of writing is going to happen. In rewrites you’ll cut out and add in. You’ll find passages you’ll think are fantastic and others that will make absolutely no sense and have you wondering what you’d intended to say. Be free with your rewrites and your self-edit. Be ruthless about cutting out or changing what doesn’t work. And don’t be in a hurry. Realize that you’ve got more work ahead.

    I really don’t have publishing advice, only to advise that you do your homework. Make sure agents and publishers are reputable. Follow their submission guidelines. And make sure the manuscript is ready before sending it out.

    If you don’t belong to a writing or critique group or don’t have a critique partner, get involved either locally or online. Make sure you’ve gotten advice from other writers about your manuscript.

    This doesn’t mean you have to take all the advice. But it’s wise to have another set of eyes look at the manuscript.

    As for conferences, they can be quite valuable, depending on your purpose for going. They can be great for learning the craft, but they’re especially good for making contact with agents and with editors from publishing houses. I don’t suggest you make it a practice of going to every conference, but you can learn from them. Again, do your homework. Read up on conferences and see what attendees have said about them. Use resources through RWA (Romance Writers of America), SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America), and MWA (Mystery Writers of America) to check out conferences and their reputations.

    Do you need to go to a conference to make it as a first-time novelist? No. But you can get some valuable tips. You can also get great info online.

    I’m lifting a glass to you and the end of your first draft. I hope it’s the end of many first drafts.

  7. Pieter says:

    Thank you for the advice. I also believe one of the first steps should be to determine your writing goals and philosophy. Anyhow thanks a mill for the info

    Kind Regards

    Pieter

  8. Pieter, excellent first steps. Writing goals could change with every project, so yes, knowing what you want to do and what you intend for any piece of writing is necessary. Great points. Thanks.

  9. Cierra Krenz says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I am trying to do all I can in order to make my first novel successful. I have a long way to go, but I am ready for the journey. With patience comes the prize.

  10. Cierra, good luck to you. Enjoy the journey as well as the destination; both are worth the enjoyment.

  11. I am an old lady, 81. I like what has been said on how to write and then go back to your writing a while later. I am in the process of writing a true story on my brother. I have my journaling, not a lot, and the medical records from the hospital and nursing homes that John was in. My goal is to expose the overdosing of John and how callous they were. I need an editor to guide me on my style of writing for this project.
    Sincerely,

    Joey

  12. i just need help for writing books.

  13. prince says:

    sir, i have a story in my mind…. its been some while ago… and now i want to write a simple novel on that… but being a newbie i don’t have enough courage to do that.. at times i am stuck up on how to start it. Actually the lead character of the story has a family. but he never stays with his family since schooling. Its like his family don’t want him to stay with them. I want the readers to get a clear view of his situation and let them wonder why…is he sent to exhile. but i am confused about the starting. so please help me… and give me suggestions on how to start it