Some Ideas on Writing Right
I've undertaken a few writing projects over the years. True, I've never finished one, and some people might think that what I have written sucks, but I still think I can share some advice that will help other aspiring authors. I mean, think how much worse my stuff would be if I hadn't done these things. Some of them I've gathered from various helpful sources over the years and others I've figured out on my own.
- Just do it. It can be really intimidating to face a blank piece of paper or empty word processing document and contemplate how much needs to be done. Just start. For me, it gets easier. On my current project I wrote two pages and gave up. Over a year later, I rediscovered the document and bumped it up to twenty pages. A few months later I started working on it again and increased it to eighty in one long day, and now it's at about two hundred thirty. Being intimidated by the emptiness becomes less of an issue the more you write.
- Use proper grammar. This is generic and should be obvious, but the more I use Facebook the more I'm convinced that the rising generation has a very poor grasp of grammar. I mean, my grammar isn't perfect either, and I understand if you don't want to stress too much over it in a casual Internet environment, but the number of people who can't tell the difference between “your” and “you're” really disturbs me. If you intend to get your work published then this is extremely important. It's not actually the editor's main job to fix silly mistakes and he probably won't have the patience for it.
- Don't use a bunch of synonyms for the word “said”, as in “he said, she said”. I used to think, like many others, that readers would get sick of the word “said” if they saw it too often, but really it's just like the word “the”. It fades into the background and you don't really pay it much notice. On the other hand, if you constantly replace it with fancier words, they draw attention to themselves and become a distraction from the actual dialogue. You can still use them sometimes, of course, but don't overdo it.
- Don't use too many adverbs. I'm still guilty of this more often than I'd like to admit, but these also become a distraction. If you rely on adverbs too much then it probably means your verbs are weak and need crutches to support them. Choose stronger verbs instead. Really, in some cases you can just delete the adverb with no adverse effects. I often find myself using the word “suddenly”, but if it's clear from the context that something is happening suddenly, then you don't really need to explicitly state it, do you? (I think “explicitly” was an appropriate use of an adverb here. I could be wrong.)
- Don't use too many commas. I noticed when I was revising something I'd written a few years ago (it wasn't finished, but I wanted to show it to people anyway and I was embarrassed by its current state) that I deleted about half the commas. They were unnecessary and only slowed down the pace, and it was supposed to be an action story. Some of them probably violated rules of grammar too.
- Remember that the readers can't read your mind. You probably have everything visualized in your head, so you might not realize how much description is necessary to convey similar images to them. Ask yourself, if you had nothing to go on but what's written on the page/screen, could you understand what's happening? Could you picture the scenery?
- Show, don't tell. This is one that virtually every writing-advice source seems to mention, but that just goes to show how important that is. It's better to convey information in a non-contrived way as the story moves along, as opposed to dumping it all at once in a bunch of expository paragraphs. In my opinion, not even Charles Dickens managed to gracefully pull off the latter approach (although people back then had longer attention spans and less stuff to keep them occupied, so I guess it's understandable).
- Don't be afraid to delete things. Maybe there's a paragraph or a scene or even an entire character that you're really proud of for one reason or another, but it contributes nothing meaningful to the story or even detracts from it. It's painful to excise things, but you must, just as sometimes limbs must be amputated to save a life. Then again, if you're writing a silly book like, say, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, then it's okay to include things that serve to entertain without advancing the plot or anything.
- Don't be afraid to save things. When you are forced to delete parts you like, or even parts that suck, save them in a separate document or notebook or something. Maybe you can use them in another project, or a different part of this one, or maybe they'll inspire you to come up with something else. Even the worst ideas have potential. It just might take a while, even years, to see it.
- Be subtle with the message. If you have some kind of moral to impart or complaint to make about the world, that's great, but no one wants to have it shoved down their throat. Include it in a way that readers can figure it out, maybe even make them think a little first, but don't make it explicit and insult their intelligence. The possible exception is if you're writing a children's book.
- Don't worry about what others think. This goes two ways. First, don't be afraid of criticism. If it's valid criticism it will help you, and if it's not then the person is probably just jealous because they've never written anything that cool. Second, don't be afraid to stay true to your views and beliefs, or to include things that might offend someone. My smart cousin Emily once said, “A good library has something to offend everybody.” If you're absolutely too self-conscious, you can share your work anonymously or under a pen name.
I hope that somebody will find this advice useful. If not, I absolve myself of all responsibility for the quality of your writing, so you can't sue me.