Thursday, August 22, 2013
What's the Best Writing Advice You Ever Received?
Mystery Writer Elmore Leonard died this week at an elderly age. Many readers loved his work; others thought he was too caustic and blunt. But critics praised his work for being spare and to the point.
His Ten Rules of Writing go down in literary history as among the very best advice.
I received a paper copy of these rules years ago when I'd entered a manuscript into an RWA contest. One judge gave me high marks, and said, "I think you're ready to publish, with only a little more polish. She said, read these ten rules of writing by Elmore Leonard and pay particular attention to Numbers 3, 4, 5, and 6. She had highlighted them for me.
These rules were:
3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said."
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
6. Never use the words "suddenly" and "all hell broke loose."
These were so easy to remember, I felt my life change. In the first place, #3 eliminated the agonizing thought process to find some other flowery or exciting phrase. I thought using "said" only was too mundane and boring.
Eliminating #4 also lifted quite a burden off my shoulders. I had a difficult time finding enough proper adverbs to use with "said."
#5-Exclamation points? I loved those! But then I learned I shouldn't use them! How else could I denote excitement?!!!
Rule #6 broke my heart, but I do understand. The phrase "all hell broke loose" should be used in an exciting western shoot-out; should I ever write an exciting western shoot-out.
The habit of using "suddenly" was difficult to break, but now I calmly write, "He jumped from the wagon," instead of "Suddenly, he jumped from the wagon."
I give all due praise to Mr. Leonard, but the very best advice on writing came from Strunk and White-The Elements of Style.
The rule is: Use an Active Voice--Not Passive.
We all learned the difference in Active Writing vs. Passive Writing in high school (or Action Verbs and Passive Verbs). The concept is easy enough to learn, but to put it into practice is another task. My very first editor taught me the difference, and thankfully, I naturally wrote in a more Active Voice. Still, much room for improvement faced me every time I sat down to write.
These rules teach the technicalities of writing a sentence, a paragraph, a full manuscript.
Other rules are more philosophical.
The very best I've ever heard or read is: Write What You Know. Not just one person said this--I've heard it and read it numerous times, enough to realize just how important it is.
It does not mean a writer living in a major city cannot write about living in a small town, because a write can find limitless sources of information. Still, firsthand knowledge does help immensely.
The diligent author might take the time and trouble to visit such a place to soak up the local flavor.
What is the best advice you received about the art of writing? Who gave you this advice, or where did you read it?
Thank you for reading my blog.