Writing advice, Writing and Editing

8 Rules For Beginners (And We’re All Beginners)

Sir V.S. Naipaul is the Nobel Prize winning English author The Mystic Masseur and many other works of both fiction and nonfiction. As an aide to a younger writer (who was struggling to overcome the academic-style jargon of the University) Sir Naipaul wrote up seven rules for beginning writers. By following these rules studiously for six months, the young writer was able to reinvent her writing style and publish her first book.

The key here (in my mind) was that the struggling young writer was not truly a beginning writer. She already knew how to write, well enough to at least successfully complete a University education. She was not learning to write, so much as she was learning to write seriously.

I would posit that no one reading my little essay is truly a beginning writer (I doubt many seven or eight-year-olds are reading this.) However, many of us are just beginning to try our hand at serious writing. Writing stories and novels that captivate readers’ imaginations, poetry that describes the indescribable, or nonfiction that makes the universe of reality come alive on the page.

These are the beginners Sir Naipaul wrote his rules for: us.

  1. Do not write long sentences.

A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words. It’s hard for most readers to keep track of such a complicated string of ideas. It can often be hard for the writer to do that too and it shows in the writing. I call it making the sentence work too hard. Have pity on the poor things.

  1. Each sentence should make a clear statement.

This builds on the previous rule. A sentence has one job and that is to make a statement, state one truth. By creating complex, intricate, sentences, we are often asking them to do too much. We overtax them. And like anything, when we overtax it, the sentence gets less and less efficient at its job. Short statements have power. Short sentences have impact. They are also much easier to read. If your prose seems confusing or disorganized, one of the first things to check is your sentences. You’re probably asking them to do too much.

  1. Do not use big words.

If you go back and find your word processor says your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small, common, words forces us to give great thought to what we’re writing. Though it isn’t easy, even the most difficult concepts can be expressed with small words. But it takes more work, more creativity. Do that work. Be creative.

  1. Never use words whose meanings you are not sure of.

Nothing marks an amateur than misusing words. As the movie said: “I do not think that words means what you think it does.” The writer needs the reader to believe her authority enough to buy in to their story. Using the wrong word kills that authority quicker than anything. We are writers. If want to be respected, we need to be professional users of language.

  1. Avoid adjectives and adverbs as much as possible.

Most adjectives and adverbs do little for your writing but slow it down and soften its impact. You can’t always make your project work without any at all, but you should try. Your prose will be crisper if you do.

  1. Avoid the abstract.

The concrete is always more powerful than the abstract. It’s why the folklore of virtually every culture developed fables and folktales. It is a much more effective way of teaching an audience, than simple telling them to follow a rule. Think of the fable of the grasshopper and the ant. The grasshopper lounges away the summer days while the ant works hard gathering and storing food. When winter comes, the grasshopper is starving, but the ant has gathered plenty of food. The tale is much more effective than simply saying: “You need to save for the future.” Concrete is more effective than abstract.

  1. Every day, practice writing this way.

Small words; clear concrete sentences; one idea at a time. It is training you in the use of the language.

These rules are intended to help with those periods (which we all have, sooner or later) when we get bogged down in some writing project or other. Often it’s because we have lost focus. More often, it’s because we have overestimated our own writing abilities and have tried to do too much. Returning to these basic rules can often show us how to work through our problem. As with much in this life, simple is often better than complex and that’s the gist of these rules: try to simplify.

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Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Say It Like You Mean It

This week at the critique group I attend an interesting topic came up. It appeared as the group was critiquing the submission of one of our members. He (in the interests of back story) is a newer member of our group, both in terms of attendance and writing experience. He is a novice and has no pretensions of being anything more. As such, we are all more than willing to help.

The particular issue in this writing sample was a marked tendency he has to qualify his statements in his writing. To his credit, he’s writing a genealogy, so there is a great deal of murkiness surrounding the historical data he’s working with. Yet, as the author of this genealogy—or any work—(we told him), he needs to cut back on the qualifiers accompanying his statements.

Why?

There are a few reasons. First, it detracts from the power of the prose. “The car drove down the road.” Is a much more powerful statement than, “A car, or maybe it was a truck, but the evidence points to it being a car, drove down the road.” It dilutes the message of the statement: that a vehicle drove down the road. In the English language simple is powerful.

Second, it makes the prose overly complicated. Take the second example from the previous paragraph: “A car, or maybe it was a truck, but the evidence points to it being a car, drove down the road.” Now imagine reading a paragraph composed of four or five sentences like that. It will have two immediate effects, none of them good. It will bring the pace of the narrative (even in nonfiction there is a story being told) to a full stop. It risks confusing the reader.

Perhaps most important of all, it damages the author’s authority. If our authority as authors is lost, we have lost our readers. It’s over. Might as well hang up our word processor and play solitaire.

Why is this so important? Because the reader of our works needs to believe the author of the book (or article, story, or poem) is more knowledgeable about the subject than they are.

Think about it. How often do you go to the bookstore or library for a book about something you already know? How many times have you bought a book by someone who has no qualifications to write it? Probably not often. I know I seek out books that either increase my knowledge, provide new experiences, or both. I’m looking for experts. I’m looking for authorities on the subject matter, whatever it is.

I think it’s pretty much universal. (It’s one of the reasons new and self-published authors have so much trouble selling their books, no matter how good they might be; they have not established themselves as experts).

All writers need to be authorities on whatever they’re writing about. They need to be experts and their writing needs to reflect this. They need to write with authority. They need to write like they know what they’re talking about.

This is true for fiction writers as much as nonfiction. I have personally had to fight this (which I take as a manifestation as self-doubt) myself, most often in description. Often in first drafts I will find myself using two or three similes to describe something, like I wasn’t sure the first one was effective and added a second for insurance. It isn’t that I doubt the readers’ ability to understand my simile; I doubt my ability to effectively communicate with the simile, so I play the odds and add another, or maybe two.

This only makes the writing weaker. As an author, I have to be the ultimate authority. If I choose to use a simile, I need to use the best one I can devise to communicate the idea and then go with it. The reader—whatever image the simile conjures in their imaginations—will assume that is the image the writer wanted.

And we can live with that.

Because there is a little secret you need to know. Most devout readers would really like to be authors themselves, but either don’t have the talent, or haven’t put in the work needed to become one. So they already admire you. Write like you deserve that admiration.

You have something to say. You’ve worked hard on the skills you need to give your ideas form and structure. Now take what you have to say and say it like you mean it.

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