Image courtesy of (logically enough) LeadingSmart.com’s Advice for Writers
I never planned on being a writer. I actually never really knew what the heck I wanted to do, other than I wanted it to be something sciecey (which when I was a kid was a vague notion of someone who wore a white coat and worked in a lab). I didn’t realize pretty deep into my tech writing career that I was a writer until I had been doing it for so long that it was impossible to ignore.
But even though my career notions were always incredibly diffuse, without really realizing it while it was happening, I started to accumulate writing advice really early on. Like, perhaps as early as Elementary School. Let me explain:
I read a ton as a kid. Neither of my parents can remember when I started to read, but both agree that I was trying to sound out words in Life and Look magazine when I was still in pre-school. It wasn’t too deep into school before I began branching out, especially into collections of short stories. And for whatever reason, I found the notes by the authors and editors that came with those stories almost as interesting as the stories themselves. Where their ideas came from (“Everywhere”, basically); who had taught them when they were learning to write; what kind of things to do if you think you might have a vocation for it.
So I started picking up suggestions early. I’m not going to burden you with all of them–I’ve been storing them up in my head for years. But one of the first and most key pieces of advice–and it’s very much a cliche, but an important one–was hammered home to me via David Gerrold in his book on how he managed to get his first story sold professionally: The script of “The Trouble with Tribbles” to Star Trek. And Gerrold’s advice, echoed by many, many, many other writers, was, “Read a lot.”
It sounds silly and obvious, but the more you read, and the more different types of things you read, the more you accumulate a store of material, vocabulary, and information to draw on. When you’re cranking along the last thing you want to do is sit there and grope for a word or concept; you want it to come out BANG so you can keep on cranking. If it turns out to be cliched or trite, hey, rework it later. But like playing scales and arpeggios for a pianist, a writer must read. Stephen King used the analogy of his Uncle’s tool box, a huge monstrous thing that apparently contained every hand tool known to man, and that King was forced to lug around whenever Uncle needed to do some work on something. If your tool box isn’t full of your writerly tools, you’re going to end up having to hammer something with a rock, or use a spoon as a screwdriver, and that never works well.
In High School I was incredibly blessed with a teacher with whom I both connected, and who respected my nascent ability, Mr. Michael Rodriguez. I don’t know how he was for other students, but for me, he was absolutely crucial (and I made sure to call him when I got hired for my first professional tech writing position and thanked him–we don’t thank our teachers enough, I think). Mr. Rod had a number of pieces of advice, but the two that stuck with me the most were: “Don’t use lame words like ‘nice’.” When asked for substitutes, Mr. Rod peppered the student (not me) who asked: “How was it ‘nice’? In what way was it ‘nice’? What made it ‘nice’ for you?” And when the student stammered out an answer several sentences long, Mr. Rod said, “Then say that! Don’t say ‘nice’! It’s meaningless!”
(This follows well on the previous piece of advice, for if you have a good store of word tools in your box, you don’t have to settle for something limp like ‘nice’.)
A second key piece of advice came my way from Mr. Rod as well who, though he clearly liked me and liked what I wrote, didn’t hesitate to call me on my BS and sloppy writing. I have a fondness for long sentences. Like King’s Howard Lauterman in “The Stand”, the compound-complex sentence was invented with me in mind. I digress, use parenthetical statements, am liberal with hyphenated clauses, and in many other ways abuse the poor reader’s patience. When Mr. Rod pointed out what I am sure was a particularly egregious example of long-winded nonsense, I protested that Faulkner wrote run-on sentences; why couldn’t I?
“Mr. Moran”, he said, not brutally but certainly with no particular kindness, “You are not Faulkner.” He might have gone on to say something about the inadvisability of high school students comparing themselves with Nobel Prize winners, but his point had been made and, truly, needed no elaboration. (It is important to extend this to almost any famous writer; I am also not Hemmingway, Stephenson, Steinbeck, Roger Angell, Joe Haldeman, Heinlein, Asimov, A.C. Clarke, Neil Gaiman, Mailer, Woody Allen, Jean Kerr, or anyone else who has no-doubt influenced my style. I’m Doug Moran; best to stick with that.)
Speaking of King, as part of a rave review of “Order of the Phoenix” (which is my personal favorite Harry Potter book), he made a great observation about J.K. Rowling’s writing (probably the only person in the world who could get away with it). I would not call Rowling a “great” writer, but she’s certainly an excellent storyteller with a stellar imagination. But King had a good point about what he saw as flaw in her writing:
<blockquote>As a writer, however, she is often careless (characters never just put on their clothes; they always “get dressed at top speed”) and oddly, almost sweetly, insecure. The part of speech that indicates insecurity (“Did you really hear me? Did you really understand?”) is the adverb, and Ms. Rowling seems to have never met one she didn’t like, especially when it comes to dialogue attribution. Harry’s godfather, Sirius, speaks “exasperatedly”; Mrs. Weasley (mother of Harry’s best friend, Ron) speaks “sharply”; Tonks (a clumsy witch with pinked-up, particolored hair) speaks “earnestly.” As for Harry himself, he speaks quietly, automatically, nervously, slowly, quietly, and–often, given his current case of raving adolescence–ANGRILY.<blockquote>
Mr. King’s point is clear, and it applies just as strongly to the poor, struggling Mr. Moran (if not more so) than to the rich, famous, and lauded Ms. Rowling: Don’t over-rely on adverbs. There’s other ways to get there.
A very related piece of advice came my way via Elmore Leonard in an interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air”. I don’t remember exactly what Leonard said, but one thing Gross made a point of asking about was the fact that Leonard never used synonyms for dialog attribution. I.e., he didn’t go looking for other ways to say, “He said” or “she said.” It was always “said”, and that was it; not “stated” or “gasped” or “rasped” or “shouted” or “bellowed” or “whispered” or anything else. Just “said”, and that’s it. Leonard’s point was that you’re wasting time and energy trying to find synonyms for “said”; “said” is a perfectly fine, solid word, and if you’ve written the rest of it properly, the reader will know whether the character is whispering or gasping or what-have-you. Further, it gives the reader license to decide for themselves; maybe you were thinking “bellow” but the reader read it as “snarked”, and that’s actually kind of cool, don’t you think, Terry? No need to make it blatant. Stick to “said”, and concentrate on making sure the rest of the stuff around it is clear and understandable.
(Applying these two pieces of advice together can sometimes be a strain. Try writing a stretch of dialog without adverbs or synonyms for “said”. It’s harder than you might think! But worth it, I believe.)
And finally a piece of advice that I absorbed by converse example (as it were) from my section’s Merrill Core Course teacher (“Social Change in the Third World”), Mr. Julianna Burton, a professor of liberal arts (I honestly can’t remember the discipline) at UC Santa Cruz. I detested the course and thought it was a waste of time, a fact that shone through crystal clear in my papers for the class, I am certain. And as teachers often do, she had her revenge in my grades. At the time, Santa Cruz was entirely on the “narrative evaluation” standard, which meant that every instructor was supposed to give you a written evaluation rather than a letter grade. Which is where she tossed in her opinions. My work was fine and my papers of good quality, but my “voice” was apparently too consistent for her, and I didn’t vary it enough to suit the material. This in spite of the fact that on the three occasions when she asked the class to vary their narrative voice–“write as if you were the narrator of this story”; “write from the point of view of an African American”; etc–I did so and still received a solid “evaluation” on my papers.
So the gist, then, was that I had too distinctive a voice and couldn’t vary it, except when I was asked, and then I could, but that wasn’t good enough. Or something.
And the piece of advice: A strong narrative voice is a good thing. How many people fault Elmore Leonard for writing too much like Elmore Leonard? This isn’t to say you shouldn’t experiment, try other voices, stretch yourself. But saying you have too strong a narrative voice is like saying a guitarist has too distinctive a style. You may not like my style–plenty don’t; I’m obnoxiously committed to the Oxford comma, and I use the British method of punctuation with quotations–but hell’s bells, at least I have one!
I know I’ve rambled on a bit here, and I apologize. These are just a few of my key writing guidelines. I have plenty more (e.g., “pithier is often better”; “try to not use the same descriptive word in a single paragraph”; “a good editor is worth her weight in gold”), of course, but honestly, not too many. For here is one from me to anyone out there who gives a rip about my writing advice: Don’t have too many rules. I follow some guidelines, but I limit them. Because if I had too many, I would never get any writing done, and that would be just as bad as cranking out crap all the time due to no guidelines at all. So that’s one of mine for you to have.
So I’ve showed you mine; what are yours?