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The Best Advice on Writing

Ten Writers Recall the Best Advice They Ever Received

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The Best Advice on Writing

Advice is cheap, the saying goes, because supply always exceeds demand. And yet, as many professional authors will tell you, aspiring writers are often hungry for advice--eager to pick up a tip that will open the door to a successful writing life.

Here are ten of those inside tips: not words of encouragement, necessarily, but sound, practical advice that can help you become a better writer.

  1. Write One Inch at a Time
    The best advice I've ever come across for any kind of writing is from Anne Lamott's book, Bird by Bird. She says to write just one inch at a time. I love that! It's so easy to be overwhelmed by a big project, but if I only have to concentrate on one inch, well, that I can handle. Eventually those inches will be feet and yards and whatever it takes to make a book. This is true for research, too, which can be overwhelming.
    (Editor and children's book author Maureen Boyd Biro, quoted in The ABC's of Writing for Children, by Elizabeth Koehler Pentacoff. Quill Driver Books, 2002)

  2. Finish Your First Draft
    The best advice on writing was given to me by my first editor, Michael Korda, of Simon and Schuster, while writing my first book. "Finish Your first draft and then we'll talk," he said. It took me a long time to realize how good the advice was. Even if you write it wrong, write and finish your first draft. Only then, when you have a flawed whole, do you know what you have to fix.
    (American journalist Dominick Dunne, quoted in Advice to Writers, by Jon Winokur. Pantheon, 1999)

  3. Get Over It
    October, 1987. Armadillocon, then the hippest science fiction convention on the face of the earth. I ran into Bill Gibson.

    "We have to talk," he said. "I've discovered the secret of writing." . . .

    "Okay," I said. "What's the secret of writing?"

    A beat, for emphasis. Then: "You must learn to overcome your very natural and appropriate revulsion for your own work."

    It was the most useful writing advice anyone has ever given me.
    (Science-fiction writer Eileen Gunn, "The Secret of Writing" in Stable Strategies and Others. Tachyon, 2004)

  4. Simplify
    I went from being a bad writer to a good writer after taking a one-day course in "business writing." I couldn't believe how simple it was. I'll tell you the main tricks here so you don't have to waste a day in class.

    Business writing is about clarity and persuasion. The main technique is keeping things simple. Simple writing is persuasive. A good argument in five sentences will sway more people than a brilliant argument in a hundred sentences. Don't fight it.

    Simple means getting rid of extra words. Don't write, "He was very happy" when you can write "He was happy." You think the word "very" adds something. It doesn't. Prune your sentences.
    (Writer and cartoonist Scott Adams, The Dilbert Blog, June 16, 2007)

  5. Murder Your Darlings
    The Tao Te Ching's call for simplicity parallels the writing instructor's advice, to strive for simplicity and clarity in writing. English author Arthur Quiller-Couch originated one of the purest rules of writing you will ever hear. He advised, "If you require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it--wholeheartedly--and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings."
    (Professor of English Ralph L. Wahlstrom, The Tao of Writing. Adams Media, 2005)

  6. Lead With Your Best
    The most useful advice on writing I've ever received comes from Gil Rogin, who told me that he always uses his best thing in his lead, and his second best thing in his last paragraph; and from Dwight McDonald, who wrote that the best advice he ever received was to put everything on the same subject in the same place. To these dictums I would add the advice to ask yourself repeatedly: what is this about?
    (Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Powers, quoted in Advice to Writers, by Jon Winokur. Pantheon, 1999)

  7. Write With Authority
    The best advice on writing I've ever received is "Write with authority."
    (Novelist and essayist Cynthia Ozick, quoted by Patrick Sebranek et al. in Writers Inc. Great Source Education Group, 2006)

  8. Stand Out as a Real Person
    [William] Zinsser says, "If you work for an institution, whatever your job, whatever your level, be yourself when you write. You will stand out as a real person among the robots." He's talking about the beige voice used by many in business, government, academic, and other institutional settings, but his advice applies even more so to the professional writer. He's saying it exactly right: When you're yourself on the page, you're gonna "stand out as a real person among the robots." The robots in this case being the folks in the mound of manuscripts piled high on any given editor's desk.
    (Author and teacher Les Edgerton, Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing. Writers Digest Books, 2003

  9. Remember to Play
    The best piece of advice I was ever given was by Thornton Wilder, who read my work for a good ten years and was utterly invaluable as a mentor. The advice he gave me was, "In writing there should always be an element of play." . . . Even though you are writing something dead serious, there must be an element of play in the work, your approach to the work, and even your doing of the work.
    (Novelist John Knowles, quoted by Jimm Roberts in Southernmost Art and Literary Portraits. Mercer Univ. Press, 2005)

  10. Show Up for Work
    There's a phrase, "sitzfleisch," which means just plain sitting on your ass and getting it done. Just showing up for work. My uncle Raphael was a painter, and he used to say, "If the muse is late for work, start without her." You have to be there. You have to be there, and do it, and grind it out, even when it is grinding and you know you're probably going to rewrite all this tomorrow.
    (Novelist and short story writer Peter S. Beagle, quoted in Novelish: A Writing Blog, Dec. 15, 2008)

Finally, the best advice of all is also the simplest, says author Peter Mayle: "Finish."

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