The Big Read Blog (Archive)

A Detour from The Big Read

July 3, 2008
Washington, DC

Mark Twain's advice about the adjective, "When in doubt, strike it out," has been pressganged into service against a lot of language besides just adjectives. Nowadays, reckless editors use it against just about anything a writer might be on the fence about. Rules are tricky things, as I discovered while drawing up a list of useful ones for writers. But, as someone who used to work for a magazine that drew up an annual roster of the 100 coolest people in Los Angeles, I'm hardly insensitive to the appeal of good list. With that in mind, here are ten practical rules for writers, suitable for recent graduates but perhaps not completely irrelevant to old hands, either. Until the Salk Institute cooks up a vaccine against procrastination, these will have to do:

1. Join a writers group, if only for the deadline. Always, for anything you write, have a deadline. When you meet one deadline, make another. When you blow one, definitely make another, and by all means forget you ever made the first one. Guilt is not your friend.

2. Be funny. Whether you're writing comedy or not, be funny. If you can't be funny, be amazing, because writing well without at least occasionally being funny is almost impossible. Try to make a reader laugh, or at least smile, with the way you pace and phrase a line. If you can't use language to provoke one of the commonest, most pleasurable experiences around -- laughter -- how in the world are you going to do the harder but not necessarily better thing, and make a reader cry?

3. Enlarge your vocabulary. I'm serious. Your vocabulary is your tacklebox. If you go fishing with only a couple of lures, you'll catch the same kind of fish over and over. Bring an overstuffed tacklebox, and there's no lunker you can't land. Use your vocabulary judiciously, of course, because not everybody has as big a one as you do. But don't be afraid, every once in a while, to use a word your reader might not know. How else are they going to learn? How else did you?

4. Keep it sensual. By this I don't mean write dirty, I mean engage all of a reader's senses, especially but not exclusively the visual. Whether with a description or a metaphor, create pictures in your audience's head. If you want to write about abstractions, be a philosopher, and reach even fewer readers than you already do.

5. Make stuff up. There's been a vogue lately for writing that feeds on pre-existing material: novels about a famous love affair, novels about a notorious calamity, novels about great writers, etc. This kind of novel can work, but something original is almost always better than something derivative -- more surprising, more fun, more suspenseful. In fiction, as on Wall Street, derivatives are an easy payday, but they don't create wealth; they only redistribute it. The trouble with making up a new story is, alas, that it's harder. Does Antioch teach a full-length course in plotting? I wonder, because it's the least teachable skill a writer needs. If only it were the least important.

A related point here: the difference between telling the truth and making stuff up is getting slippery lately. When in doubt, trust what works. If the true stuff reads better, you're probably writing nonfiction, so take out most of the made-up stuff. If the made-up stuff reads better, you're writing fiction, so take out most of the true stuff. If you can't decide which stuff reads better, write poetry. There at least, the true and the made-up belong together.

6. Keep rewriting the ending till it's perfect; then wait a week and write it again. Writing an ending is the great lost art in American fiction. With the possible exception of your first graf, your last graf is the most important. If you can't decide between two endings, they probably both need work.

7. Go for broke. Odds are you'll be broke anyway, so you may as well go for it.

8 . Write every day. I've never tried this myself, but I hear it works.

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