Advice on Writing From Everybody

Okay, maybe not everybody, I’ve been reading a lot about writing, when not reading fairy tales (I’m working on a book).  It’s interesting how often the same few bits show up.  Here is the summary, followed by a list of sources.  I’d love to hear other essays & books I should read as well.

Many of these were those I knew. A few were surprising; almost every single writer loathed adverbs and preferred to just write “said.” I.e. if you write, “She said haughtily” or “He growled threatening” you are probably annoying the crap out of your favorite author.  No one mentioned punctuation or dangling participles, but boy they hate adverbs. Luckily I’m too lazy to use them.

I’ve also suspected the writing is a lot like going to the gym. That was born out by the advice of: do it every day, don’t take a break, if you skip a day, go back the next. The more you write the better you write… all can be said of working out.  There seems to be a writing muscle that grows flabby if not used.

The Collected Advice

  • Read a lot. Read everything. But “garbage in garbage out” does apply to writing.
  • Write as much as you can. Quantity leads to quality.
  • Write at the same time every day. Your brain will start to expect it and produce.
  • Don’t take a break from writing, and if you take a day off, write the next day.
  • Finish what you write. Don’t polish half an apple.
  • Give yourself a daily word count. The number doesn’t seem to matter (500-1500) but the expectation does.
  • Don’t edit the first draft. Flow swiftly and passionate to the end. Then have a rest (a day for short pieces, six weeks for a novel), then edit.
  • Know the rules first, break the rules that keep the writing from flowing. Write the way you talk.
  • Avoid adverbs, especially in dialog.
  • Enjoy your self. Stop worrying, don’t be jealous, don’t be mean to yourself.
  • Community helps. Some have a reader they write for, some have a writing group, some use the web. But we write for others, and we need them to listen. Just no criticism while writing the first draft.
  • Finish. Even when it sucks, keep going to the end.
  • Write first, get good second, agents and publishers last.


Selected Quotes

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my  brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.'”

Ann Lamott

Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Kurt Vonnegut

If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.

Billy Wilder

Don’t use any extra words. A sentence is a machine; it has a job to do. An extra word in a sentence is like a sock in a machine.

Annie Dillard

Sometimes it’s like driving through fog. You can’t really see where you’re going. You have just enough of the road in front of you to know that you’re probably still on the road, and if you drive slowly and keep your headlamps lowered you’ll still get where you were going.

And that’s hard while you’re doing it, but satisfying at the end of a day like that, where you look down and you got 1500 words that didn’t exist in that order down on paper, half of what you’d get on a good day, and you drove slowly, but you drove.

Neil Gaiman, on writing when it’s hard to write

I do a first draft as passionately and as quickly as I can. I believe a story is valid only when it’s immediate and passionate, when it dances out of your subconscious. If you interfere in any way, you destroy it.

Ray Bradbury


And a bunch I’ve forgotten, most likely….