Saturday, June 30, 2012

Top 10 Tips from the Masters


The following tips are from the Writing Classes website  . I have compiled a top 10 of these rules, with my own analysis.

1. Write. (Neil Gaiman)

It goes without saying, if one wishes to be a writer, one must first write. Writing is not easy. Although his second practice starts with ‘put one word after another’, it is important to take note of the full practice:

2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down. (Neil Gaiman)

Anybody can jumble together a collection of words, but it takes true skill to get words that portray the meaning you want. There are 26 letters in the alphabet. Even simpler there are four squiggles that make up all 26 letters: the line, the curve, the dot, and the flick. It is our job as writers to give meaning to these simple squiggles on a page and to give the reader a reason to want to find that meaning.

3. Never open a book with weather. (Elmore Leonard)

Readers don’t care what the weather is like in your story. Of course, there is an exception to the rule: if the story is the weather, you can open with it. I mean, if there is a storm in your world and the story is about the storm, it is OK to start your story with it.

4. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. (Elmore Leonard)

Obvious really. If the reader is going to skip over it, don’t write it in the first place. This goes hand in hand with another of Elmore’s rules: ‘Avoid prologues’. Some readers don’t read the prologue; therefore, you shouldn’t put one in. At least that’s how I view his rule.

5. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. (Elmore Leonard)



In high school, I was taught the rule ‘never say said’. In GCSE English I was taught using synonyms is a good thing to do. In my education, it has been made abundantly clear saying ‘he boomed’ or ‘he queried’ is better than ‘he said’ or ‘he asked’. Since I started learning how to write properly, I have been taught the rules I has taught were wrong.

Using a word that isn’t ‘said’ causes the reader to think more than they need to. It also could be a sign of weak writing; if you need to say ‘shouted’ to make it clear the character is shouting then you need to rewrite the dialogue. You should make sure what your character says fits the way he says it. If you do that, then you don’t need to explicitly state how he said it.

6. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. (Elmore Leonard)

Similar to what I said above, using an exclamation mark means your sentence isn’t clear enough. The sentence should be an exclamation without requiring the mark to show it.

7. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. (George Orwell)

A word that can be cut has no place in the finished piece. A lot of the time it is the word ‘that’. If you type your writing, you could use the search feature to find all occurrences of ‘that’. I did a search of this article as I wrote this rule and cut out 5 ‘that’s’.

Sometimes whole phrases can be cut. This is likely due to redundancy in your prose. I often find I write a sentence and then the next sentence says the same thing as the first. It could be due to me being a discovery writer and making things clear in my mind as I write as opposed to an outliner who is already clear on what they want to say.

8. Never use a long word where a short one will do. (George Orwell)

I think this one is self-explanatory. Readers care not for your wide vocabulary; they care only for the character and plot. This is not to say you should dumb down your writing. It means you should not opt for a longer word if the shorter one gives the same meaning to the sentence.

9. Use the active voice. (Strunk & White)

If you write, you will have heard this many times before. I need not bore you with my take on it, but I will for just a moment.

‘Harry was waving the wand and it was making sparks’ is far, far more boring than

‘Harry waved the wand and sparks flew’

10. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there. (S. Shchukin (not on Writing Classes))

Foreshadowing a great tool. It makes the reader go ‘ah ha’ when the realise you set something up in the previous chapter. Faux-foreshadowing can be good in detective novels, but in other writing it is a sure-fire way to annoy the reader.

Think of a magic show. You’re in the audience and on the stage you see big boxes and mirrors. There are blades on the table and swords in buckets. Imagine your disappointment when the magician only does close up card magic and uses none of the props.

Bonus: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. (George Orwell)


Hope this helps,
Matt B

P.S Also available here:  WDC: Tips from the Masters

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