January 9, 2014

It Starts When They Find the Dead Body—26 Tips That Will Make Anyone a Better Writer.


I don’t have the nerve to sit here and call myself an expert on writing.

That would be arrogant.

Writing is something that I’ve decidedly not yet mastered although I’ve been working hard at it since before I can remember and I plan to make it a lifelong habit. In fact, I’ll probably keel over at my keyboard one day and I hope that when that finally happens, I’ll be at least 99 years old.

I’ve been both a student and a teacher. I’ve attended and conducted many, many creative writing workshops in all genres, meeting countless wonderful, imaginative people along the way who have inspired me endlessly, because sharing our stories does that. Through learning and through teaching, I’ve become a bit of an expert on dreadful writing and common mistakes, many of which I’ve made myself.

I’ve also picked up a lot of valuable and pretty simple tips that can help us all improve our writing dramatically and I’ve compiled them all for you right here, like a mini-crash course in creative writing.

Here are 26 bits of advice that can help anyone be a better writer:

1. Read.

This should be obvious, but many of my students want to write and refuse to read anything at all. I don’t care what you read. There are books and magazines about every possible topic known to man, so find whatever you are interested in and read about that. If you want to read US Weekly instead of Derrida then have at it.

Reading is reading and the more acquainted you are with the written word and with reading instead of just hearing language, the more ease you’ll have with writing. Reading should be fun. Read whatever you want.

2. Write.

Duh. You wouldn’t believe how many people I know say they want to be writers and they won’t sit their butts down and write anything. Many of them are more enamored with the imagined romantic life of a writer than with the actual writing part of being a writer.

To these people I say two things: stop trying to write and just read the stuff you like or sitting in a bar, rolling cigarettes and looking dirty does not make you hip, edgy, Charles Bukowski or a good writer. It makes you stink, both at writing and literally. Go home, get a shower, turn the computer on and write something.

3. Watch TV.

Watch a lot of TV. Shocking, I know, but trust me.

I’m not talking about a marathon of reality shows concerning the lives of vapid celebrities, bearded rednecks or be-leoparded hairdressers in New Jersey. Watch the good shows: the comedies, the dramas, the cable shows that are too raw and raunchy and real for the networks. This is where you’ll find storytelling at its finest and most concise.

TV writers don’t have time to mess around so they have to get straight to the point, suck the viewer in immediately and either solve a problem or end on a dramatic cliff-hanger all in less than an hour. Still don’t get it?

Do yourself a favor and watch the pilot episode of Breaking Bad.

It should be required viewing for every creative writing class. Already saw it? Watch it again from a writer’s perspective and analyze why it works so well.

4. An ampersand in the middle of the page (and other similar attempts at cleverness) does not make a cool and postmodern “story.”

That is some lazy BS, folks. Again, write something. Don’t decorate a page with nonsense. That’s pretentious.

5. Stop going crazy with pronouns at the beginning of sentences.

Also, it would help to know what pronouns are in the first place before not going crazy with them. Bad writing is often marked by a repetitive sentence pattern that goes like so: pronoun, verb, blah blah blah. He did this. She did that. Change up your sentence structure and patterns throughout a piece of writing to avoid this.

6. Name your characters.

Lately I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the line of pronoun nuttery where no one wants to give their characters names anymore. It’s all anonymous He and She. Why? It sounds pretentious not to name these people. Who are they? Then, if you do name them, please give them names appropriate to the times in which they were born and their social status and don’t give your heroines stripper names unless they are actual strippers.

No one in medieval times was named Kaylee, okay?

7. If you have written something, especially but not limited to poetry, which contains the following imagery, please rethink what you’re writing and do an extensive edit: hearts, dripping blood, flames, pain, daggers, roses, black roses and red roses in particular, thorns on said roses and the boyfriend or girlfriend who just dumped you yesterday.

8. Do not, under any circumstances, except very good satire, and probably not even that, write about vampires.

Vampires need to get back in their coffins or go underground or wherever they sleep and rest for a good 25 years or so until we can drag them back out again and reinvent them for a new generation of angsty teens. We need a new monster and it shouldn’t be zombies because those need to stagger back to their graves for a while as well. Hanging on to the coat-tails of literary trends makes you a copy-cat.

If you want to write about monsters and horrors, that’s totally cool, but make up your own. Invent a new menace to scare the crap out of your readers.

9. Avoid fan fiction as well.

I know that fan fiction has gotten some people started writing in the first place, and that’s great, but stay away from it. Make up your own characters and ideas. Imagine your own magnificent worlds. Don’t riff off of someone else’s.

10. Don’t write the first thing that comes to mind on any given topic or writing prompt.

We humans aren’t usually that effortlessly original. Whatever you think of first is pretty much what everyone else thinks of first too.

Keep brainstorming and write about the fifth or sixth thing that comes to mind. This technique has helped me get published a number of times. I’ll see a prompt or challenge or a call for submissions on a topic and I’ll try to imagine what everyone else will write about and then I’ll turn it on its head and write something totally unexpected, finding a new angle on the subject so that I stand out. Works like a charm.

11. If you don’t have a good hook, I don’t want to read past your first few sentences and neither does anyone else.

Be mindful of that first sentence. Make it unexpected and surprising. Use an unusual image, sentence structure or piece of action. I find it extremely useful to go back to my favorite books and look at their first sentences and try to figure out what initially drew me in. This also works well with the first scenes of movies or television pilots.

12. Start the story in the action.

In my creative writing classes so many students struggle with how to begin. Too often, they’ll want to write about a trip they took and they’ll write four useless, boring pages about getting up and going to the airport and flying there and it will have nothing to do with the actual trip.

If you find yourself beginning with your character getting up in the morning this is a massive red flag that you’re starting in the wrong place. CSI doesn’t start with its detectives getting dressed for work. The story starts when they find the dead body.

13. Everything you write should have a point to make about something.

The best writing makes connections.

It shows us a facet of the human experience, making us feel that we are not alone. Try to figure out what point you’re going to make before you start writing so that you have an objective. Even the simplest experience, in writing, can be about something more profound. Look for the greater meaning in everything and then use your writing, fiction, poetry, non-fiction, whatever, to illustrate that greater meaning.

14. The best stories are those about realistically flawed characters placed in extraordinary circumstances who choose to do the right thing even when it isn’t the easiest choice.

These are often the tales that become timeless and beloved.

15. Stories are about change and growth.

Readers love stories about how people learn big life lessons and especially stories about how people overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

16. Subtlety is sublime.

Do not beat the living tar out of your reader with that point you’ve decided to make. You don’t need to lecture your reader about the meaning of what he or she is reading. Readers like to be detectives and find the meaning for themselves. Give hints and clues along the way. Be stealth. It’s more fun for everyone.

17. Your protagonist, or yourself if you’re writing memoir, must be a little messy.

Okay, sometimes a lot messy. Perfect people are dull and they don’t exist. Human beings are a complex blend of light and dark. We all make mistakes and in writing, the stories about the mistakes we make are fascinating. Our heroes must be fallen.

18. Likewise, our antagonists must also be lovable.

Save the two-dimensional villains for the fairy-tales. Real evil is profoundly complicated and enormously compelling. Dig into the lives of your bad guys. Make them real. Give them a good side or an interesting back story. Delve into their psychology as much as your main character’s.

Think Tom Riddle/ Voldemort in Harry Potter. You want your reader to enjoy the scenes with your villain as much as he or she looks forward to the scenes of your hero, even if it’s just to delight in their magnificent awfulness.

19. Please don’t write run-on sentences they make you look stupid.

Long live the coordinating conjunctions! Use them. Punctuation is good. When I read anything full of run-ons, even a Facebook status update, it makes me want to beat the writer with a grammar textbook.

20. In memoir, avoid writing about personal drama while you are in the middle of it.

This is big, people.

I’ve made this mistake a couple of times and it’s a fast track to a train wreck if you do it. Write about the personal dramas that have already played out. You’ll have gained some perspective and you’ll know the ending. You won’t sound like a freaking lunatic. Save the venting for your journal and turn it into a more serious piece later on.

21. Sleep on it.

Sometimes when we write, we’ll get caught up in the creativity and become delusional as to our own brilliance. Other times, we’ll get stuck and agonize endlessly over some nitpicking element of our project until we’re paralyzed. Both scenarios are cured by putting the piece away for a while. Sometimes overnight, sometimes a week or a few or a month or two. I’ve come back to things years later. After a break, you can see your writing with fresh eyes again so you can revise like a reasonable human being.

22. Don’t write in a manner that is so obscure and dense that your reader can’t understand you.

Writing is about reaching out and connecting to others and if you haven’t done that you’ve failed at your mission. Writing is about letting people in, not shutting them out. Just tell us a story simply and beautifully. What happened? To whom? Why? Let us know that we’re all going to be okay in the end somehow.

23. Don’t kill off your main character.

I don’t know why, but my creative writing students always insist on doing this and they all believe they are the first person to ever come up with such a wild idea. Same goes for making it all a dream. Please don’t do that. It wasn’t all a dream. Dorothy really did go to Oz, okay?

24. Don’t be Tobias Funke.

Arrested Development is one of the greatest television comedies of all time and one of the show’s best characters is Tobias Funke, a clueless cheeseball who wants to act in movies so desperately that he does everything wrong, proving himself an over-eager amateur with talent only for making a fool of himself.

Beginning writers remind me of him a lot and I too have been guilty of a few Tobias-isms. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, get the dvds or Netflix and start watching and never include glittery confetti with your cover letter.

25. Something needs to happen.

This should seem obvious, but it isn’t. In a story (even true ones) there’s action, not a bunch of people sitting around talking with no discernible point. Action. We like action. Blow some stuff up (metaphorically, for the most part).

26. And oh, the endings.

Endings are hard. It feels like you need a conclusion to wrap it all up but how do you do that without sounding sentimental and corny or repetitive? If you must, then keep it short, but better yet, just end on an image. Let your reader go with a picture in his or her head to remember. These endings are always the ones that move me the most deeply. Like this: there you are, at your computer, your hands about to strike the keys. You, with the light from the screen on your face, about to write something brilliant.

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photos:  benjaminasmith/Flickr, Florian Klauer/Unsplash

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